Will Donald Trump have a lasting and possibly pernicious impact on American foreign policy, or will the so-called ‘adults’ in his administration educate him and change his ways?
For supporters of the alliance and the importance of the frequently-invoked, but less often seen, ‘rules-based liberal international order’, these are tough times. This is especially so in Australia, where the conventional wisdom still has it that not only is the security of the country entirely dependent on the continuation of the alliance with the US, but only American can be relied upon to underpin an open economic order.
Whatever the merits of the first proposition, the second one has just been unceremoniously blown out the water. Donald Trump’s seemingly impulsive decision to finally take action against the likes of China and stop it from ‘raping’ the country may have been a long-standing part of his electoral rhetoric, but its announcement still took friend and prospective foe by surprise.
For a trading nation like Australia, which is highly exposed to, and dependent on, the international economy, Trump’s nationalist, neo-mercantilist approach to trade is potentially disastrous. There is a very real possibility that other countries will respond in similar fashion, potentially triggering a downward spiral of beggar-thy-neighbour protectionism of a sort that made the Great Depression such an unprecedented economic disaster.
Labouring the parallels between the 1930s and our own time risks being labelled as a professional alarmist and attention seeker, but the rise of authoritarian nationalists around the world is not conducive to technocratic debates on the merits of enlightened trade policies or much else for that matter. One of the unfortunate features of ‘strong man’ leaders is that they have large egos and are often not good at taking expert advice.
This problem is compounded in Donald Trump’s case because some of his ‘experts’ appear to be as ignorant and ill-informed as their boss. Peter Navorro, who was plucked from well-deserved academic obscurity to become one of Trump’s key trade advisors, subscribes to a view of economic theory that is bizarrely anachronistic and at odds with the complex realities of international economic integration.
Yet Navorro’s star appears to be rising again as the internecine war that passes for policymaking in the deeply factionalised White House lurches in a new direction. In part, no doubt, this is because he receives solid support from Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who shares Navarro’s views about the need to take a more aggressive approach to ‘cheating’ trade partners.
Not all Trump’s inner circle share such perspectives, however. Revealing, some of the swamp-drainer-in-chief’s appointments from Goldman Sachs, notably chief economic advisor Gary Cohn, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, were both opposed to precipitating a trade war, despite their boss’s typically preposterous, ill-informed bluster about them being ‘easy to win’.
It is also significant that some of ‘my generals’, as the leader of the free world, likes to describe them, were also opposed to unilaterally imposing tariffs on steel and aluminium imports, but to no avail. Given that rumours continue to swirl around the futures of chief of staff John Kelly and security advisor H.R McMaster – not to mention Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – one might be forgiven for wondering who will actually be responsible for America’s already erratic, destabilising economic and even strategic policies on a day to day basis. If the supposed ‘adults’ can’t control Trump, who can?
All of this matters because many of America’s allies cling to belief that either Trump will be ‘socialised’ into good behaviour or, if that fails, the best policy is to simply wait him out. He won’t be around forever and normal service will be resumed in three or possibly seven years.
Both of these ideas look like wishful thinking and potentially dangerous. There is little evidence to suggest that Trump is capable of learning or changing his ways. As has frequently been pointed out, he is possibly the most ignorant, ill-qualified person ever to become president – in the face of some stiff recent completion for that title. When coupled with a monumental ego and sense of self-importance learning from others or understanding the basic principles of the system over which he presides seems like a remote prospect.
In the meantime, Trump may blow-up not just the world economy, but – more consequentially for Australia, perhaps – relations with East Asia. In North Korea’s case, the blowing up could be quite literal, with all the unpredictable collateral damage that could produce. But even in a less combustible case, Trump may do enormous damage to relations with China, as well as America’s supposedly vital role in preserving the international order upon which we all depend.
Australia’s limited international significance means that we may not be able to do much about Trump. But do we really need to be quite so obsequious and obliging to a regime that is inflicting real damage on our vital interests, without so much as a second thought? Probably. The conventional wisdom is so deeply entrenched, pervasive and uncontested in Canberra that not even the presidency of Donald Trump looks like overturning it.
Keywords: Trump; US foreign policy; trade wars; socialisation; Australia-US relations;
Mark Beeson is Professor of International Politics at the University of Western Australia. Before joining UWA, he taught at Murdoch, Griffith, Queensland, York (UK) and Birmingham, where he was also head of department. http://www.web.uwa.edu.au/person/mark.beeson