Trumpesque rowdy diplomacy?
PRETORIA – Every time the image of the US President Donald Trump comes up on television all sorts of slurs and disparaging remarks are passed. If people think of anything worse than a clown, Trump comes to mind.
This is mainly due to rhetoric and negative reporting by the media. The man is still a president of his country and calls shots in the world’s largest economy. At the same time, he has his own way of driving diplomacy and is unprecedented.
Ever since Trump took over at the White House, the media and publicity function is on the president’s fingertips. He tweets about everything and anything from his ongoing battles with house speaker Nancy Pelosi to frosty relations with China. He certainly does emulate starring in cowboy movies of yesteryear: he’s trigger happy and shoots from the hip. No one wants to upset the big man of the town.
He has turned the old tired, cold and conservative profession of diplomacy on its head.
Any day, Trump is capable to say something that shakes the world. With him, it is easy to expect anything. But one thing is certain, he has woken one of the world’s oldest professions from its slumber and turned it into a monstrous public relations razor that shreds note verbales and agréments.
Diplomacy is no longer recognizable too many. And some former heads of state probably think the same when they see him battle it out with journalists in press briefings. A bullish CEO is in town, he cares less about nursing feelings.
Although Trump’s style of diplomacy is often deemed unconventional, there are many of his clones out there.
Brazil, a ‘Dumb Giant’
Brazil’s Jario Bolsonaro is the first one who comes to mind. He is a conservative who has fired two health ministers in a single month right in the middle of a pandemic. If anyone wants to see someone who closely resembles Trump, please do not look further than Brasilia. His staple diet also includes Chinese investments in Brazil and doesn’t think much about Cuba.
But he’s still a bit shy to upset the Dragon since he knows that his country needs Chinese investments. However, things may change in the future. Bolsonaro is unpredictable in his own right. He has wrestled with Havana after he accused Cuba of paying its doctors “slave wages” but later had to retract his decision that led to the cancellation of the bilateral medical programme.
Looming is a showdown between Brazil and China but from legislators.
One publication calls Brazil a “Dumb Giant” in reference to its foreign policy under Bolsonaro. It moves from one crisis to the other in a space of days. For example, his son and member of congress Eduardo Bolsonaro referred to the coronavirus as the “China virus.” Obviously, Beijing wouldn’t be pleased. Education minister Abraham Weintraub “accused Chinese medical equipment makers of profiteering from the coronavirus pandemic.”
According to the Foreign Policy magazine, the anti-China sentiment is growing in Bolsonaro’s innermost circle. At the same time, Bolsonaro could face impeachment in a country that never hesitates to remove any seating president – he’s said to be politically vulnerable at this point in time.
Mexico’s Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador
The Brazilian president isn’t alone in spreading the Trumpesque tradition, just south of the border Andres Manuel Lopez (“AMLO”) has forgotten his leftist credentials to behave like his heavyweight northern neighbour in every sense. Like Trump, the Mexican president has had mixed feelings about coronavirus. He even refused to lock down the country like his newly found idol in Washington. Now he’s at loggerheads with other levels of government in federal Mexico for his insistence on the abrupt re-opening of the economy.
Reports from Mexico City suggest that AMLO also holds daily briefings like Trump in what the media calls “a spectacle without any value’.
China’s 'Wolf Warrior' diplomacy
As a result of the coronavirus backlash and overall uneasiness in the West, China has developed what is now dubbed 'Wolf Warrior' diplomacy, also a Trumpesque way of conducting state-to-state relations.
Starting from late in 2019, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi directed the country’s diplomats “to be more assertive in representing Beijing’s interests overseas and vocal in defending the Chinese Communist government from criticism,” according to VOA.
Of course, this was long before the coronavirus erupted in Wuhan and later spread all over the world. China’s misgiving was that it was being unfairly criticized for human rights abuses and for toxic loans to Africa as well as the tug-of-war with the US on trade issues, among many other things. Europe began as the epicentre for the Wolf Warrior' diplomacy where many countries were generally critical of the Chinese human rights record.
The setting in of the coronavirus pandemic has seen the effort to defend the flag rise. Called by mostly Western media “wolf warriors”, after a blockbuster movie in which Chinese special forces vanquish American mercenaries in Africa and Asia, the diplomats have removed gloves to fight with bare knuckles.
The warriors use the mainstream media and social media as sparring platforms from Paris and Stockholm to Ottawa and Pretoria. The sharp-tongued China envoy to South Africa Lin Songtian recently returned to Beijing to take up a senior post at the foreign ministry. Sources suggest that he is going to play a part in the new diplomatic policy proposition for his country.
Nonetheless, anti-Chinese sentiment in many countries sees the warriors pounce on behalf of their country. One envoy complained that when the Chinese expressed their views it it is not received in a fair manner. For example, the Chinese embassy in Sri Lanka wrote: “When westerners publish their opinions, it’s called freedom of speech, no matter how false. When the Chinese say something different from them, it’s called a disinformation campaign. Hilarious double standards.”
It is not only diplomats abroad that bite. Different sources report that anyone visiting the Chinese foreign ministry in Chaoyang District, Beijing can feel the changed, unpleasant aura in the air. The head office monitors anything from votes by countries in multilateral institutions to Taiwan and Tibet.
China’s hardened diplomacy with the US and its allies is quickly altering the global landscape, the gripping bite of the coronavirus on the world economy will triple as the tensions escalate as a result.
The change in style by Chinese diplomats has been characterized as “pugnaciousness”, “throwing mud when provoked”, etc. Writing for the Foreign Affairs magazine former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd says whatever the reason for this assertiveness the new approach could backfire. “Chinese soft power runs the risk of being shredded,” he argues.
As a big German Hound, Trump has changed diplomacy to a rowdy house. Maybe his friends and foes also noticed that the old book of diplomatic practice is now outdated and that the rules have changed. As the old saying goes, “If you can’t beat them, join them!”
By the way, Trump has hired World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Vince McMahon as an adviser on reopening the US economy. Therefore, there is only one way to describe the WWE-like madness…
It is rowdy diplomacy all over.
Based in Pretoria, Siyabonga Hadebe is an independent commentator on socio-economics, politics and global matters.