Donald Trump (pictured), by his own account, is a global force that people cannot afford to ignore. He is doggedly self-conscious, unapologetic, and politically shrewd. He is a man of establishment and yet behaves as if he is an outsider. He represents a different breed of leaders in the West, those with bulldozing and don’t care attitudes towards domestic and international issues.
While he angers the mainstream media and associated establishment institutions with his antics, he attracts popularity among the white “masses” as well as leadership imitators. Among the imitators is British Prime Minister Boris Johnson; he is not the first.
The United Kingdom, out of necessity, likes to tag along the United States. The two powers tend to have a senior and junior partnership, with the Americans leading. They switched leadership positions towards the end of the 19th Century as Britain bent backward to accommodate emerging American might that was eager to imitate “mother England” in global power projection.
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A geopolitical “mother and son” relationship developed in which the United States assumed some of Britain’s imperial “responsibilities”. A similar relationship, although with less attachment, developed with France, a cultural cousin of England. Thus, London and Paris continued to have the upper hand on matters colonial while Washington dealt with general global concerns.
With that unwritten understanding of sharing the global governance spoils, Anglo-American leaders look compatible and concede to each other’s primary concern on some serious issues. For instance, London conceded to Washington’s desire to invade Iraq in 2003 and Washington conceded to London’s wish to impose “power-sharing” in Kenya following the 2007 electoral mess.
Recently, in many ways, Johnson behaves as if he is a Trump carbon copy in London. Both men, virtually looking alike, shock and awe the “establishment” and arouse widespread nationalist sentiments. They both dislike and use unpleasant language in reference to Africans and think it would be good to recolonise African countries. Under Johnson, Britain still guides the United States on how to handle Kenya while the UK seemingly follows the American lead on fixing Iran.
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Trump captures imagination due to his unorthodox ways of governance. His top policy advisors quickly fall out of favour and then some reveal awkward things about their boss. The latest Trump establishment victim is John Bolton. As US ambassador to the United Nations under George W Bush and then National Security Advisor to Trump, Bolton seemed like what The Washington Times termed an “attack dog against…anti-American international organisations”.
Under Bush, Bolton was instrumental in getting the United States out of International Criminal Court, the ICC, and in the US invasion of Iraq. The ICC, he believed, was a threat to American sovereignty and national security. As National Security Advisor, Bolton declared the ICC an “illegitimate court” that was “antithetical to our nation’s ideals.” Thereafter, Washington revoked Fatou Bensouda’s visa to the United States, after which the ICC decided that it could not investigate American atrocities in Afghanistan. Bolton was happy and seemed like Trump’s intellectual alter-ego.
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Bolton, however, seemingly under estimated and rubbed Trump the wrong way. While Trump tries to look and sound tough, he is not a warmonger. He seeks his “Nixon Moment,” but his advisors, particularly Bolton, appeared to sabotage it. In the search for his Nixon Moment, Trump was receptive to cutting deals with North Korea and Iran but Bolton wanted to overthrow the regimes in those places by going to war, if necessary. He had experience starting wars, as he did in Iraq, and he wanted war in Iran and in Venezuela to overthrow the Iranian ayatollahs and Nicolas Maduro. Trump realised that he would not achieve his Nixon Moment as long as Bolton was egging him on into war, so he fired Bolton because Bolton’s warmongering was contrary to Trump’s deal-making proclivities, whether in business or statecraft.
Firing Bolton revealed a usually hidden side of Trump. He is not a warmonger, despite surrounding himself with warmongering individuals. Some of his close advisors had low opinion of Trump and did not understand his intentions, deep desires, and dislikes. They thought they could control him. Trump, for instance, desired a new nuclear deal in Iran mainly to despise his predecessor at the White House, Barack Obama. He also wanted a deal with North Korea and twice met Kim Jong-Un initially only for Bolton to introduce tough conditions during the meeting that scuttled the meetings. At times, Trump stated, he had to “temper” Bolton’s hawkishness. He got tired of tempering his advisor.
Trump’s governance behaviour and handling of big headed advisors is of interest to other “leaders”. These include not being beholden to traditions and what others say while focusing on upsetting “the establishment”.
Prof Munene teaches History and International Relations at USIU