Ten things the Greenland debacle has taught us about Trump
24 Aug 2019|

1. Old dog, old tricks

Cutting deals over real estate is the foundation of President Donald Trump’s world view. Recall the video Trump produced to show Kim Jong-un in Singapore with all those condo-ready North Korean beach fronts. ‘Two men, two leaders, one destiny’, it intoned. It seemed the president really thought that Kim would relent on his nuclear ambitions once he saw the true potential of property development.

Likewise, how could Denmark not even want to see the shape of a possible deal to sell Greenland? A rejection from Copenhagen based on history and culture probably made no sense to Trump because his world view has been built on position and value.

2. So, this is how you deal with Trump

The lesson for Scott Morrison, prepping for his September state visit to Washington, is that the best way to deal with Trump is to let him play to his strengths. I doubt that the president cares much for the ‘hundred years of mateship’ campaign which Joe Hockey has so masterfully spruiked to put lumps in the throats of congresspeople and generals.

Trump will want to cut to the deal. Yes, that’s transactional, but we must let Trump be Trump. So Morrison needs a pocketful of straightforward deliverables to get the president’s attention. No, I’m not suggesting we sell Tasmania, but practical suggestions for doing more defence things together will butter more presidential parsnips than appeals to our shared glorious past.

3. Dissing Denmark delights disrupters

Could anyone doubt that Trump utterly delights in making his progressive opponents froth at the mouth in rage at his non-establishment antics? Predictably enough, the New York Times has gone off like a Catherine wheel: ‘That the president of the United States would demonstrate such willful ignorance of how the world works … is frightening’, the editorial board foamed.

Trump’s voter base, few of whom are likely to savour pickled herring, are in on the joke too. If it outrages the Times, it has got to be good for the country. Filling the airwaves for 24 hours with a story that makes the progressives outraged makes the base happy.

4. Trump is consistent

After cancelling his visit to Denmark, Trump was back on message on Twitter:

For the record, Denmark is only at 1.35% of GDP for NATO spending. They are a wealthy country and should be at 2%. We protect Europe and yet, only 8 of the 28 NATO countries are at the 2% mark. The United States is at a much, much higher level than that …

Trump is like the hedgehog that knows one big thing, and in the president’s case it’s that NATO is ‘very unfair to the United States’. Trump has been relentlessly and correctly on point in insisting that NATO countries and other US allies need to do more for their own security. As far as the president is concerned, any European causes of unhappiness can be linked back to defence spending.

5. Friends, schmends

It matters not to the president that Denmark’s defence spending has been increasing or that Denmark is a model good international citizen with meaningful troop presences in Afghanistan and Iraq and peacekeepers everywhere from Mali to Ukraine. Nor does it seem to matter that the US already maintains vital defence facilities on Greenland, at Thule Air Base, with Denmark’s support.

The ease with which Trump can slap old friends and close allies remains deeply disturbing. If that happened in a personal friendship, one would question if the relationship would last. But in Trump’s diplomacy it’s just as likely that he’ll be declaring a great friendship with his Danish counterpart in coming days. The trick is not to take any statement too seriously, but Trump must be aware that the allies are worried. Perhaps he enjoys generating the uncertainty.

6. Trump has consolidated his power

Reportedly no one in the White House was prepared to push back against presidential musings about buying Greenland. In earlier days, one can imagine a Jim Mattis or even Rex Tillerson counselling caution—that this isn’t how things are done in international diplomacy. No more. The adults have left the room and Trump has complete control of the engine. Moreover, he seems extremely comfortable with this arrangement.

I doubt we’ll see more generals in top jobs in the Trump administration. The president has decided he is his own best adviser.

7. Gut guides global gamesmanship

We have known for some time that Trump doesn’t bother too much with briefing material. He went into the Singapore meeting with Kim trusting his gut that personal engagement with Kim would make a denuclearisation deal possible. Equally, on gut instincts Trump made the right decision to walk from an inadequate North Korean offer in Vietnam to dismantle one nuclear facility. Gut as a basis of political judgement isn’t always wrong and it plays a much larger part in political decision-making than many might think. Few presidents, though, have been quite so openly dismissive of the briefing book in favour of the vibe of the thing.

8. The election battle rhythm is set

A clear pattern of Trump behaviour has been set and will take us to the presidential election on Tuesday 3 November 2020. The president will attend his rallies; he will talk to the media while walking to Marine One; he will tweet outrageously, seeking to provoke his political enemies and to amuse his base; he will needle allies on well-established themes like defence spending and unfairness to America. On the face of it, this approach is working for him. As of today, there are 437 days to the presidential election.

9. Trump will count this as a win

The president will be delighted with his handiwork. New York Times enraged? Tick! Progressives apoplectic? Tick! Europeans dismayed? Tick! Is the base happy? You bet your life they are! Several media cycles have been played out with the president centre stage—‘I am the chosen one’—setting the news agenda for the day in outrageous and unexpected ways. And, most importantly, in entertaining ways. The show goes on and Trump will count days like this as wins on the way to a second term.

10. Trump is redefining politics

‘Is this real life?’, the New York Times editorial board asked in exasperation. ‘Is this some sort of joke?’, asked a former Danish prime minister. Well, no and yes respectively. What’s really happening here is that Trump is recasting the content of American politics for the internet age. Can this be stopped? Who knows, but have you heard this one: ‘Trump wants to buy Greenland, but the Danes want Nunavut.’ Yuk, yuk.