Donald Trump’s victory has shocked America and the world. America is deeply divided. Where he might take US foreign policy is unclear. We need to redefine the Alliance relationship.
The competition between Trump and Clinton was widely described as savage, to an unprecedented degree. It was also a competition between two candidates who polling showed they were the least liked of all time. Thus, a significant number of voters saw their decision as one of choosing between two evils.
These are important facts about the election and the state of the US polity, but of fundamental importance in determining the outcome was that it became an election about the state of affairs in middle America: economic hardship, glaring inequality, and despair about the ability and willingness of the conventional political process to fix things.
Significantly, these were in fact the realities to which Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren had called attention, but their potentiality as candidates was negated by the Clinton machine.
Donald Trump assessed accurately the feelings of people who have been left behind, and by people who feel alienated from the conventional political process. This was vastly more important to them than Trump’s fantastic carelessness with the facts of any matter and his other antics.
If there was a pivotal moment in which Hillary Clinton lost the election, it was when she called Trump’s supporters “a basket of deplorables.” This was not only felt as deeply insulting but, in an instant, underscored the perception of her as an aloof, smug, elitist; a quintessential product of the political class in which so much faith had been lost.
Notwithstanding the clarity of Trump’s Electoral College victory, and that of Republicans in the House and Senate contests, voting patterns underlined significant divisions in America. These were not those predicted. For example more white women voted for Trump and against Hillary than expected. The divisions in America verified by the election were the usual urban/rural/regional, but also, importantly, by class.
America’s political machinery is now back in white, republican hands, but presided over by a person with no previous experience in government, with a track record of somewhat despising it, certainly of not paying taxes, and perhaps most importantly, displaying a deep lack of interest in it, expressed in his having not read the Constitution.
The important question to which an answer will be given sometime is: will Trump’s presidency prove to be a kind of political troglodytism or a breath of fresh air let into a fossilized and corrupted system.
On foreign policy and the US’ role in the world, Trump made a series of threats/promises to; build a wall on the border with Mexico, withdraw from a series of trade agreements, threaten NATO unless its members contributed more, cancel the nuclear agreement with Iran, destroy ISIS. This list was not short, and the items just referred to are not all of it.
He said his foreign policy would rest on unalloyed pragmatism. Principles or international law and commitments were not mentioned. Chancellor Merkel’s pointed statement when acknowledging Trump’s election, included a list of fundamental obligations accepted by the US, which she expected would continue to underpin the US’ international conduct. It deserves to be read.
In relations with other countries and existing international commitments, he would simply identify and pursue US interests. There would be no sacred cows, including NATO, the fattest of them all. He would seek friendship with everyone, would refuse to be threatened by anyone, including Vladimir Putin and the Russians, currently being hyped as an existential threat to the US, in a new Cold War.
On enemies such as ISIS, he would destroy them, implying substantial US military action overseas.
On trade treaties such as NAFTA, he would withdraw the US and would sink the PTT. This reflected his position on globalization and its consequences within the US economy, especially on jobs.
Malcolm Turnbull has already spoken to President-elect Trump about his keenness on the PTT. We’ve no idea what Trump would have made of Turnbull’s determination to continue down that path, in spite of the damage PTT would do to Australian communities.
For Trump to make the claim that US interests would always come first, as if this were a cornerstone, is a bit like reinventing the wheel. What will need to be fleshed out is the specifics of action on any given issue.
For example, what will he do about the US’ continuing involvement in the Middle East wars, now lasting some 13 years, since the US started that calamity when it illegally invaded Iraq, or about nuclear arms control when it is, in fact, crumbling.
On nuclear weapons, to the alarm of very many countries Trump has said, that maybe it would be a good idea for some other countries to obtain nuclear weapons, but he would withdraw from the agreement with Iran under which its nuclear weapons program was halted, while clearly not including Iran in the group of countries whom he could accept acquiring such weapons.
Trump will come to the Presidency very much in need of knowledge and advice on issues of foreign policy. Who will give that advice and what he will do with it, are also significant unknowns.
His instincts will be nationalist, oriented to domestic issues and, thus, relatively introverted. As he acknowledged in his election night remarks, the US is in dire need of massive expenditure on infrastructure. This is crucial to those who elected him, and perhaps naturally, they are basically uninterested in the US’ international relations.
But, as a partner in an Alliance with the US, Australia is not. Trump’s election raises a host of foreign policy issues of interest to us, which can be summarized under two headings.
First, to what extent will President Trump become the subject of advice, more likely manipulation by, the Pentagon, the intelligence community, and the defense related corporations. These are massive and powerful organizations, with their own strong interests. Given their knowledge base and the new President’s lack of it, to what extent, for example, will he be able to take decisions designed to scale back the US’ current external ventures and focus on domestic concerns?
The military/intelligence/ corporate complex will seek to do everything in its power to prevent any such reduction in their influence and prosperity.
Secondly, given what is clearly a dramatic shift within the US polity, bringing with it both instability within the US and externally, will we now investigate redefining our relationship with the US to bring to an end the automaticity with which we have followed it, wherever it has asked us to go?
That automaticity has led us to incur great material and human costs, principally in the Middle East, that is, far from our immediate national security sphere in Asia and the Pacific. And, in that sphere, we have been pressured by the US into adopting a stance against China, which is both of dubious use and exposes us to unnecessary danger.
The justification given by successive Australian governments for our assuming and ever enlarging our client-state relationship with the US has been that this will ensure that the US will protect us, guarantee our security, through extended nuclear deterrence. This notion is a deception. No nuclear- armed state will risk nuclear war to protect another, whether in an alliance relationship, or not. Trump’s nationalist introversion simply reinforces this truth.
We need to think these new circumstances through and not wait, as usual, to receive US orders. Trump’s victory makes more urgent than ever our need for an independent Australian foreign policy.
In my paper, An Independent Australian Foreign Policy ( Pearls and Irritations, May 13th, 2015) I mentioned the “disarray in the US polity” as one of the reasons for our needing to free ourselves from at least some of the Alliance habits. I had no idea then, of the extent of the disarray that is now upon us all.
Richard Butler AC is: former Australian Ambassador to the UN; Diplomat in Residence at the Council on Foreign Relations, New York; and a Professor of International Affairs at Penn State University.