World

Trump's State of the Union address shows no sign of compromise. Turnaround for reputation of Fiji’s Frank Bainimarama. Messaging service used for attacks in India. Trump suspends missile treaty with Russia. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Misstate of the Union

Vice-President Mike Pence and house speaker Nancy Pelosi watch as President Donald Trump delivers the State of the Union address this week.
Credit: Jim Watson / AFP / Getty Images

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

Washington: Five days before he delivered his second State of the Union address, Donald Trump gave an interview to The New York Times after requesting a meeting with its publisher, A. G. Sulzberger. For this media-obsessed president, whose insatiable craving for publicity steered him from a wealthy neighbourhood in Queens towards the world’s most powerful position, the interview provided a revealing insight into his obsession with one last prize beyond his reach. “I’m sort of entitled to a great story from my – just one – from my newspaper,” he pleaded with Sulzberger.

Trump’s contradictions – aggrieved yet entitled, image-obsessed yet trusting of his unfiltered instincts – were on full display when he finally delivered his address to congress in Washington on Tuesday. The “dissonant” speech, as The Washington Post labelled it, had been delayed because of the 35-day government shutdown, the longest in American history, which was triggered by Trump’s demand the Democrats fund a wall on the Mexican border.

Trump, whose Republican Party last year lost control of the house of representatives, mixed his dark portrait of an America under siege from criminals and murderous immigrants with appeals to “reject the politics of revenge, resistance, and retribution”. Hours earlier, he had given an interview in which he described the Democrats’ senate leader Charles Schumer as a “nasty son of a bitch”.

In his hour-and-22-minute speech, Trump, despite his plea for bipartisanship, showed no sign of compromise on the border wall and angrily denounced the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. He welcomed the record numbers of women in congress, even though many were Democrats who had campaigned against his policies on contraception, abortion and closing the gender pay gap. Fact checkers had their usual field day, pointing to fabrications about migrant numbers, abortion, NATO defence spending and economic growth since his election.

In his only significant revelation, Trump announced he will hold a second meeting with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, later this month, claiming he had personally prevented war. Fact checkers put this on the exaggeration list.

Amid the usual theatrics, there was a Trumpian mix of guests at the Capitol, including a police officer shot at a synagogue massacre, a 10-year-old cancer survivor and Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin.

There was also an 11-year-old named Joshua Trump, who had been bullied because of his surname. His presence seemed to be intended as a symbolic reminder that the president, despite the pomp and ceremony, is not only a billionaire making sacrifices to restore his country to its former glory, he is also a victim, unfairly maligned, who made it to the chamber from Jamaica, Queens.

AUSTRALIA’S BACKYARD

Suva: Although Frank Bainimarama began calling himself prime minister soon after seizing power in a bloodless coup in Fiji in 2006, much of the international community has long been reluctant to embrace his rule. The former military commander won elections in 2014 and 2018, but his government has been accused of stifling both the media and opposition.

Yet Bainimarama’s reputation has been undergoing something of a turnaround in recent months and, increasingly, he is being embraced on the world stage.

This is partly in response to Beijing’s growing influence in the Pacific, which has led countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Britain to seek closer ties with island leaders.

Scott Morrison recently travelled to Fiji – apparently the first state visit by an Australian prime minister – and praised Bainimarama for delivering “prosperity and stability and continued peace”. Asked about an alleged authoritarian tint to the Bainimarama government, Morrison responded: “I don’t accept the premise of your question.”

Another reason for Bainimarama’s rising status is that he has become a leading global voice for action on climate change.

In a recent list of global thinkers for 2019, Foreign Policy magazine included Bainimarama among its top-10 thinkers on energy and climate. His entry read: “After coming to power as a military strongman, Frank Bainimarama has … [established] himself as a global advocate for environmental protection, in no small part because his country is on the front lines.”

In Suva, Bainimarama directly confronted Morrison, saying Australia’s support for coal and opposition to clean energy threatened the welfare of Pacific peoples. Morrison insisted his government would meet its emissions targets, although official data suggest otherwise.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Delhi: In India, a brutal series of lynchings and mob attacks – spurred by false reports and images spread on social media – has become known as the “WhatsApp killings”. The deaths have led messaging giant WhatsApp to set global limits on the number of people to whom messages can be forwarded – five, down from 20.

Now, as India prepares for an election in April and May, there are growing concerns about the potential misuse of WhatsApp by political parties.

While blame for the attacks, at least 84 last year, falls squarely on those inciting religious and caste enmities, as well as on inaction by politicians and police, WhatsApp has proved a tragically effective vehicle for spreading inflammatory lies and rumours.

India is both the world’s largest democracy and the biggest market for WhatsApp, with more than 210 million users. Many use it not only to send private messages, but also as a news source – WhatsApp in India has one of the highest rates of forwarding of stories and images. As the world has discovered though, virality, unchecked, can be dangerous.

Ahead of the election, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has already begun planning to ensure that local operatives, armed with smartphones, will be ready to spread messages via WhatsApp from each of India’s 927,533 polling booths. A former party official told Time magazine the party has personal data of voters and classifies them according to factors that, worryingly, include religion and caste.

WhatsApp has started partnering with fact-checking sites to try to quickly identify misinformation and has supported a hotline for reporting suspicious messages. But this will only address a trickle of messages and will likely have little effect on election day. Sunil Abraham, from an Indian technology-focused think tank, has proposed including a label on every message on WhatsApp, saying: “This could be fake news.”

SPOTLIGHT: Arms race

In 1987, the leaders of the world’s superpowers met at the White House. After agreeing to call each other by their first names – “Ron” and “Mikhail” – the pair sat at a long wooden table and signed a landmark treaty to reduce their enormous nuclear arsenals.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of the Soviet Union, said it was “a big chance, at last, to get onto the road leading away from the threat of catastrophe”. Some Republican US senators expressed reservations but eventually backed their president, Ronald Reagan, who said he hoped the historic treaty, which eliminated all land-based medium-range missiles, was “not an end in itself, but the beginning”.

On February 1, 2019, Donald Trump announced he was suspending this treaty. The move followed growing concerns about Russia’s violations, including its development of a new medium-range missile. Trump has also raised concerns about the threat from China, which is not bound by the pact.

Vladimir Putin, who has accused Washington of breaching the treaty, responded by also suspending it and announced plans for two new land-based missiles.

None of this would matter if the treaty had proved to be a readily breached facade, as its critics had warned. Instead, it worked. Almost 3000 missiles were destroyed, on-site inspections were allowed for 10 years, and regular meetings were held to discuss compliance and raise concerns.

Now, the last great Cold War arms treaty is set to fall. This could encourage Russia to adopt an even more aggressive stance towards its rivals, particularly in Europe. It may lead to the abandonment of further treaties. And it would allow the US and Russia to develop a new class of missiles, which will further promote proliferation.

Trump says he will abandon the treaty from August if Russia does not destroy its new mid-range weapons. Instead, he could have tried to negotiate with Putin and he could have encouraged Beijing to join the pact.

Suspending the treaty makes the US look belligerent, reduces the prospects for placing diplomatic pressure on Beijing and allows Russia to complete its missile program. It marks a dangerous step away from mutually assured restraint.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 9, 2019 as "Misstate of the union". Subscribe here.

Jonathan Pearlman
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.