On 8th November 2016, global politics went into a tailspin. A world still struggling to come to terms with the shock of Brexit was confronted by the Donald Trump bandwagon rolling into Washington, D.C. on the back of a mainly white, some would say racist, backlash against the political, intellectual and economic establishment. Such was the shock of Trump’s victory against Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton that it is probably too early to talk about shock waves reverberating around the globe. Nothing is reverberating yet. The situation feels more like a slow motion accident that everyone knows is going to happen, but can do nothing to stop.
But, like it or not, Donald Trump is the president-elect, and he is slowly getting a team together that, when taken alongside his previous speeches and statements, provides some clues to his planned agenda. His approach to domestic concerns seems to be clear, suggesting a move to the far right, but one that might lean so far towards a Ron Paul style individualism that it could ironically please some of the Bernie Sanders supporters that failed to back Clinton.
What Trump will do in foreign policy is still unclear. It is unclear because Trump believes that uncertainty is at the heart of all good policy making, but particularly at the level of international politics. But policy making in foreign affairs faces structural constraints that differ from domestic politics. Even the most powerful man in the world faces a series of structural constraints on his ability to act as he pleases, and these come in both domestic and international forms.
In theory, the US President exercises almost complete authority in terms of international politics, but the dynamics and structural constraints placed on decisions at the international level mean that, in reality, the room for autonomous decision making is severely circumscribed. On foreign policy issues, Trump will still encounter the ‘Washington Playbook’ so derided by President Obama, and he not only faces his own inherently conservative diplomatic core and foreign policy elite, but also other states, whose views may not align with his own. That said, what kind of foreign policy might be expected from the Trump administration?
Any piece that purports to dare to know what the Trump presidency will mean in foreign policy terms has to come with some strong caveats. First, I did not believe Trump would gain that Republican Party nomination. Wrong! Second, I did not think, even in my wildest nightmares, that he would win the election. Wrong again! Apart from a few exceptions, such as Michael Moore and Professor Allan Lichtman, who correctly predicted a Trump win, I, like everyone else, have a problem in providing further commentary. As I said in a tweet on the day after the election, “You would think all the pundits who said he would not win would take a break before telling us why he did win.” Yet, this is the business everyone is in, so here goes.
There are six main issues in Trump’s potential foreign policy to highlight. First, he treats foreign policy issues as economic matters. And, economically, Trump has a deep distrust of global free trade regimes. According to the Trump narrative, globalisation and major elements of the free trade system constructed post-World War 2 have led to jobs being located outside of the US, and immigrants flooding into the country to undertake low-paid menial tasks that could, and should, be going to disenfranchised Americans.
Whether he believes globalisation to be the cause of America’s (perceived) woes is beside the point. His path to power was constructed by tapping into the deep disenchantment of the losers of globalisation. Concerned middle-class voters, who although well off in absolute terms when measured against national wage standards, did not feel well off, and blue collar workers, predominantly white men, felt excluded from the benefits of the world economy. The idea that the global economy disadvantages the average American transcended party lines. It helps explain the appeal of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton’s eventual repudiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). But given how important this narrative was to Trump’s success, it will be an important driver of his foreign policy as he seeks to provide his supporters with evidence that he can deliver on his promises.
Hence, it is expected that he will at least make some attempt to change areas of the current free trade regime. He has already begun to do this by announcing that he will begin to withdraw from the TPP on his first day in office. This may please China, who refused to take part, and those anti-globalisation protestors that tried to block the deal, but the other signatories to the TPP will be dismayed. Australia has already tried to put a brave face on Trump’s decision, but it is doubtful if the TPP can work without US involvement.
Second, what this means in security terms is that he will be wary of new overseas commitments, but also seek to roll back some that are already in place, or at least move towards a comprehensive restructuring of them. A common theme of his foreign policy announcements so far has been to describe the post-World War 2 alliance system as a drain on American resources. In effect, he has accused many of America’s closest allies of freeloading. This narrative threatens to damage relations with Japan, South Korea, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and others.
Moving forward, it is expected a Trump administration will adopt a pragmatic approach, again embedded in an economic rationale, which would make US alliance commitments dependent on other states paying more for US security guarantees and involvement. The idea of a more detached, self-interested ‘America First’ policy clearly found support from US citizens reluctant to embrace international responsibilities as the price for global leadership.
Third, the dilemma for Trump is that, although he is deeply critical of the idea of US involvement in foreign wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and elsewhere, he has promised to get “extremely tough” with ISIS. It is difficult to see how this getting tough can be reconciled with a US withdrawal from the Middle East conflict zones. One option might be to get tough with those regimes providing support for extremism in all its forms? He has already indicated his deep distrust of Iran and has threatened to overturn the nuclear deal that many believed to be one of Obama’s greatest achievements.
It is hard to see how getting tough with Iran could help deal with ISIS. In fact, quite the reverse; ISIS and Iran are enemies and, as was evident after ISIS swept through swathes of Iraq, Iranian support is needed to help defeat ISIS. Indeed, if Trump is serious about getting tough with Islamic extremism, his first target should be Saudi Arabia, which at the very least is the source of the ideological roots of much of contemporary radical Islam.
However, while getting tough with Iran and Saudi Arabia might please his domestic grassroots supporters, the dynamics of these complex relationships are not well understood even by those that study the region, let alone a president who seems to have no historical sensibility of what drives these regional conflicts. Only a fool would rush into the Middle East with a simple solution. But then again, that is precisely what many think Trump is, so who knows.
Getting tough with ISIS may not even be an option. Militarily at least, ISIS is all but defeated, at least in Iraq. In Syria, closer relations with Russia could lead to the Assad regime regaining control of most areas and driving ISIS out. But this does not bode well for the containment of international terrorism. Once ISIS no longer has safe bases in Iraq and Syria, it will disperse. Unable to maintain the integrity of the caliphate, it could expand its recent tactic of taking the fight to Europe and beyond.
Australia, thankfully, has thus far been spared from major terrorist attacks. Although Australian support for the US in the Middle East does make it a potential target, there are sound geographical reasons for why ISIS may look elsewhere. The potential for increased terrorist activity in Australia is slight, although vigilance is still required. That said, overreaction to terrorist threats is a bigger problem for Australia, as it heightens public concern and disrupts movements of people and commerce. Hence, a sense of proportion suggests that governments should not introduce new policies to limit civil liberties on the basis of perceived but low-level terrorist threats. Balancing freedom with security is never easy, but in a democracy, the former should, in most cases, take priority.
Fourth, although not explicitly expressed in this way, many of Trump’s foreign policy pronouncements mirror something that was explicit in the Brexit vote. This is the issue of national sovereignty. His pledge to build the “Great Wall of Mexico” was effective precisely because of its rudimentary simplicity. Although couched in an economic language of saving US jobs and the social dislocation language of “rapists, crooks and criminals”, it is part of a broader appeal for the restoration of national sovereignty.
As Trump himself tweeted, “A nation without borders is not a nation.” America First, the Great Wall of Mexico, stopping immigration and regaining economic control are all about the restoration of US sovereignty. As such, much of the Trump doctrine can be expected to be about pursuing this, even if some of the ways of doing so might produce unwanted outcomes and contradictory policy processes.
Fifth, great power relationships under the Trump administration are difficult to predict. On the one hand, it seems as if Trump would like to ‘normalise’ relations with Putin and the Russian state. The most immediate impact of this would be an attempt to align the Russian and US position on what to do about the war in Syria. The idea of trying to develop better relations with Russia is surely something no one would object to, but it is not without its problems.
If normalisation leads to granting Russia a free hand in Syria and parts of Eastern Europe, then the outcome could be disastrous. But this is international politics; a realm in which the choice is often not between good and bad outcomes, but rather one of choosing the least worse option. Perhaps the least worse option in Syria is to accept that the goal of removing President Assad from power is counterproductive to stopping the war. And stopping the war should be the first option. But, in principle, better working relationships between the great powers are to be expected.
What the election of Trump will do, however, and the America First logic seems to confirm this, is instigate a retreat from human rights discourse as a leading driver of US foreign policy. There is no doubt that authoritarian regimes have welcomed Trump’s victory, and normative international principles such as the Responsibility to Protect can look forward to nothing but a hard time for at least the next four years. International human rights will not be high on Trump’s agenda.
Ironically, this will please those on the right who think it is not the responsibility of the US to act as a global policeman, but also those on the left who vehemently object to US intervention on the pretense of defending human rights. International politics throws up some strange partnerships on many issues. And, of course, there is also the environment, which, much like human rights, is expected to go well onto the back burner in the Trump era.
But what of that other great emerging power, China? This presents Trump with major problems. His pre-election rhetoric concerning China does not bode well for future relations. According to Trump, China engages in unfair trade practices; it manipulates its currency to gain an unfair advantage; it ignores intellectual property laws; and it has a poor record of worker-safety standards and environmental protection. In short, China has improved its ability to compete in the global economy at the expense of other nations. Although much of this is true, one can point to historical examples of other states engaging in similar practices and, in many cases, much worse, to gain an economic advantage. Colonialism anyone?
How Trump will deal with China could have major consequences for Australia and the region. However, the wilder excesses of Trump’s pre-election logic concerning China will more than likely be mediated by economic pragmatism. Pressure from allies, who will bargain with Trump to provide him with victories regarding alliance contributions, will hopefully mean that a trade war with China will be avoided. That is the optimistic and most likely outcome, but do not put any money on it. My days of forecasting are over.
Sixth and finally, some see the election of Trump as a direct threat to the Liberal order that has governed international relations since World War 2. This is grossly overstating affairs. While it is true that a Liberal world order devoid of US leadership is diminished, one would hope that that order is not so fragile that it could not survive a period of American withdrawal. Of course, if the US, Russia and China all work towards the dismantling of the Liberal world order, then its future may not be so bright. But it is in the interests of none to do so.
States can untangle themselves from certain relationships, but the current configuration is so multi-dimensional that any attempt to do so would inevitably damage all. Moreover, were they to do so, they would be handing the final victory to ISIS who, in seeking to build a caliphate, present themselves as an alternative to the Westphalian State system. Now that would be ironic.
In the final analysis, any discussion of what the Trump presidency means for foreign policy takes place in uncharted waters. Whatever transpires, there is no safety zone called Australia. How Trump deals with international trade will undoubtedly impact on the Australian economy. Heightened tensions with China could severely destabilise the region, as well as disrupt economic prosperity. Whether the conflict with Syria is resolved or continues will have a severe impact on the issue of immigration, as would conflict in the region more generally. And a lessening of the bonds that bind the international community through institutions such as the United Nations would mean forums for Australia to influence global policy become less influential. Another Donald, Donald Rumsfeld, raised the issue of unknown unknowns, and it is these that should worry everyone. Trump is an unknown quantity in foreign policy terms, and everyone has to hope, because hope is better than despair, that the system will exercise more control over him than he will over it.