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Speaking of America

In Donald's world order, America will Trump the world

An America that takes care of its own and is less inclined to intervene in global conflicts. A multipolar world where strong leaders rule. Trade war with China. That is what one can expect from a Donald Trump presidency.

Whisper it quietly, but Washington insiders are beginning to seriously consider the possibility that there might very well be a President Donald Trump.

As it turns out, those high polling numbers were not just survey respondents having a good laugh; they were actual supporters who cast actual votes for Mr Trump.

And though the controversial tycoon still has many obstacles to overcome before he can be considered a favourite for the White House, he is certainly in the driver's seat in the race to be the Republican presidential nominee.

And if he gets there, then he could be one major scandal away from becoming the leader of the world's largest superpower.

But what would a Trump presidency actually look like for the world?

Thus far, what most people know of the Trump foreign policy is limited to the crazy proposals that have made headlines: build a big wall between the United States and Mexico and get Mexico to pay for it; start a trade war with China; ban all Muslims from entering the US; and bring back the use of torture for enemy combatants.

His pronouncements have been alarming enough that already a whole host of foreign dignitaries and officials have felt the need to raise concerns about the US election process.


Mr Trump during a campaign rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina, on Wednesday. Foreign policy think-tanks secretly voice alarm about what his presidency would look like for Asia and the world. PHOTO: REUTERS

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hua Chunying, for instance, recently reminded the US of its "major responsibilities" when asked about Mr Trump's proposed trade war with China.

"Since it belongs to the domestic affairs of the US, I am not going to make comments on specific remarks by the relevant candidate," she said. "But I want to stress that China and the US, as the world's largest developing and developed countries, shoulder major responsibilities in safeguarding world peace, stability and security and driving world development."

Others have been far less restrained.

In December, British Prime Minister David Cameron responded to Mr Trump's Muslim ban proposal by saying that those remarks were "divisive, stupid and wrong".

"I think if he came to visit our country, he'd unite us all against him," he told British parliamentarians.

Similarly, Vice-Chancellor of Germany Sigmar Gabriel said in an interview last week that a Trump presidency would be a threat to world peace, lumping him together with European anti-immigrant, right-wing leaders.

"Whether Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen or Geert Wilders - all these right-wing populists are not only a threat to peace and social cohesion, but also to economic development," he said.

In Washington, many observers in foreign policy think-tanks refuse to go on the record about Mr Trump but secretly voice alarm about what his presidency would look like for Asia and the world.

Part of the anxiety is fuelled by the fact that large parts of Mr Trump's foreign policy remains unknown.

It is clear that Mr Trump is in the position he is in in the election not because of a firm grasp of foreign policy. On Super Tuesday - when faced with a rare question about his world view - Mr Trump brushed it off to talk about infrastructure in the US.

"You go to different places in China, different places in Asia, different places in the Middle East, you look at some of the airports they have. You look at the roadways they have. You look at the transportation systems they have and the trains they have. We're like a Third World country," he said.

NO ROOM FOR LOSERS

Trump's stances on the foreign-policy issues of the day show his years-long, zen-like focus on his core foreign-policy belief: The United States should only get into a situation where it can win, preferably in conjunction with another willing party.

'MR ALEX WARD of the Atlantic Council

FOREIGN-POLICY UNKNOWN

So I am going to be very good for the world. I'm going to get along with the world. You're going to be very proud of me. Even you will be very proud of me as a president. But we have to rebuild our country.

MR DONALD TRUMP, on infrastructure in the United States

"So I am going to be very good for the world. I'm going to get along with the world. You're going to be very proud of me. Even you will be very proud of me as a president. But we have to rebuild our country."

Just try to parse his positions from such answers. The image that comes up? A cause for concern.

ISOLATIONISM AND TRADE WARS?

While he professes very Republican views on immigration, he seems less keen on free trade than his party colleagues. And while he talks tough on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) like the rest of the Republicans, he appears less supportive of US intervention in other global conflicts.

The latter point is actually one of the clearer and more enforceable tenets of Mr Trump's foreign policy beliefs and a useful place to start to analyse a potential presidency.

Unlike some of his other suggestions, this is one that appears to have been consistently held for decades and well within the powers of a president to enforce.

There is no way he could possibly get Congress to release funds to build his Mexican wall even if he secured some kind of way to get Mexico to pay. Though he can impose a Muslim ban, the idea is so preposterous that it doesn't warrant discussion.

In 1987, Mr Trump spent over US$90,000 buying full-page ads in three major newspapers to criticise the foreign policy of then President Ronald Reagan.

"There's nothing wrong with America's foreign defence policy," said the ad, and included the line that America should "stop paying to defend countries that can afford to defend themselves".

Though that was 30 years ago, his position has evidently not shifted. In 2013, he had posted a YouTube video on South Korea where he said: "I keep asking, how long will we go on defending South Korea from North Korea without payment? South Korea is a very, very rich country. They're rich because of us."

Mr Alex Ward of the Atlantic Council described Mr Trump's thinking this way in an op-ed: "Trump's stances on the foreign-policy issues of the day show his years-long, zen-like focus on his core foreign-policy belief: The United States should only get into a situation where it can win, preferably in conjunction with another willing party."

That might mean a reassessing of the country's activist role in many global security situations. It is likely Mr Trump will see no need to further US engagement in the South China Sea and a revision of alliances with South Korea and Japan. One could reasonably expect China and North Korea to take on even more assertive stances in the region.

A second key policy to look at is his approach to trade. On this point, he has made two clear points.

The first is that he would want to renegotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal to include currency manipulation. "The deal is so bad because of the fact they don't cover currency manipulation. It's the No. 1 weapon used by foreign countries to hurt the US and take away jobs."

If the deal is ratified and signed by the US Congress before he takes office, there may be precious little he can do to unravel it. But if it remains stuck in the legislature, then it is safe to assume that the deal is dead for the foreseeable future.

The second aspect of his trade policy involves a trade war with China to narrow the US$300 billion (S$415 billion) trade deficit. That includes a proposal to impose a tariff on Chinese imports into America. He reportedly told The New York Times that the levy would be 45 per cent, although he was subsequently less committal on the actual number.

Experts question if he would be able to pull off this particular move. The president cannot impose this tariff unilaterally and will need to subject the proposal to a congressional process that studies if the level of Chinese currency manipulation artificially depresses prices by 45 per cent.

At a time when Beijing is busy trying to prop up the yuan rather than devalue it, it is highly unlikely that it will arrive at the same number.

A high tariff will also likely run afoul of World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules and the administration would be forced to argue its case through the WTO process for years to come. And that may well be a good thing because a trade war with China - one that sees trade flows between China and the US drop significantly - would shrink the global economy and likely send the world into another recession.

STRONG BUT FLEXIBLE?

Beyond foreign policy and trade, what of his personal relationships with world leaders? One persistent theme of his current campaign is his insistence that nearly every problem can be solved by being strong and negotiating well.

Mr Trump has already shown a liking for strong world leaders. He would probably have no issue with a multipolar world, where major powers with strong leaders like Russia and China are free to do as they like, provided they do not get in each other's way, or in America's way. That should be a concern for all smaller nations.

Consider his comments in a Fox News interview about how he would relate to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"I was over in Moscow two years ago, and I will tell you, you can get along with those people, and get along with them well. You can make deals with those people. (President Barack) Obama can't... You know, deals are people. I make a lot of (deals)," he said.

That penchant for deal-making, though, isn't all bad news. It suggests that Mr Trump's extreme pronouncements may not be dogma.

He has repeatedly stressed that for all his stubbornness, he is flexible.

"I've never seen a successful person who wasn't flexible and who didn't have a certain degree of flexibility," he had said at a debate in Michigan. "You have to be flexible because you learn."

Granted, given the chaos the foreign policy of President Trump is likely to cause, one would have to hope that he is very, very flexible.


  • Speaking of America is a fortnightly column from our United States bureau.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 11, 2016, with the headline 'SpeakingofAmerica In Donald's world order, America will Trump the world'. Print Edition | Subscribe