Preparing for President Trump

LONDON • As America's friends and allies look on in astonishment at the all-but-certain prospect of a contest between Mrs Hillary Clinton and Mr Donald Trump in November's US presidential election, they need to do more than just wring their hands. They must hope for the best but prepare for the worst.

The crucial point about the 2016 election is not just that a reality-TV star and property magnate who has never held elected office has emerged as the presumptive Republican candidate. It is the enormous difference that a victory by Mr Trump would make for the rest of the world, compared with a victory by Mrs Clinton.

In every US presidential election in modern times, America's friends and allies have had their private preferences. But never before have the Democratic and Republican candidates been as different as chalk and cheese. There was no unbridgeable gulf between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, or Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, or George W. Bush and Al Gore, or Barack Obama and John McCain. There is between Mr Trump and Mrs Clinton.

To the rest of the world, Mrs Clinton represents continuity, and Mr Trump means dramatic change. Just how dramatic cannot be known, but the normal assumption that candidates play to their party's core supporters during the primary season but then tack to the centre for the general election cannot be relied on in Mr Trump's case. His is an abnormal candidacy.

That is why preparation makes sense. Mr Trump confirmed in his speech on foreign policy to the Centre for the National Interest in Washington, DC, on April 27 that "America First" would be the overriding theme of his administration. He would reject multilateral trade deals and institutions, take a much tougher line on illegal immigration and forge a new approach to defence and security alliances.


The world should prepare for a "predictably unpredictable" US should Mr Trump win the presidency in November. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Mr Trump declared in that speech that he wants the United States to be "predictably unpredictable", but he also made it clear that he won't abandon his basic position. Allies will have to pay more for their defence. And they can expect tough measures by his administration if they have an enduringly large bilateral trade surplus with the US. Regional deals, such as the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) between the US, Mexico, and Canada, are a "total disaster" that have tied America's hands. So the best assumption is that they would be scrapped.

So how can friends and allies prepare for a President Trump? Discreetly, of course. But the author of the 1987 bestseller, The Art Of The Deal, would surely agree that sound preparation is the essence of striking a good bargain. If Mr Trump finds evidence of it after having won the White House, he would likely admire his counterparts for it, even if secretly.

There are two sorts of things that friends and allies can and should do to prepare for the worst. One is to make themselves stronger and thus better able to stand up to a bully. The other is to shore up their alliances and friendships with one another, in anticipation of an "America First" rupture with old partnerships and the liberal international order that has prevailed since the 1940s.

A weak Japan and a fractious collection of 28 countries in the European Union would be a tempting target for President Trump. A Japan that had, over the next 12 months, truly embraced the growth-enhancing strategy of liberalisation promised by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would be in a stronger position. So would European countries that dropped their obsession with fiscal austerity and used public investment programmes to kick-start growth and reduce unemployment.

Such moves, which are needed in any event, would make it easier to start on the task of building stronger alliances - which may well become essential.

If a Trump administration seeks to scrap Nafta, Canada and Mexico will need to make common cause. If it chooses to discard the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement negotiated by the Obama administration with 12 Asia-Pacific economies, those countries, perhaps led by Japan or Australia, must be ready to carry on the deal, or something like it, among themselves. (Mrs Clinton has also turned against the TPP, but this can be assumed to be merely tactical; in Mr Trump's case, no such assumption is warranted.)

A similar story applies in Europe. To avoid being pushed around by Mr Trump over trade or security, EU and Nato members must be prepared to stick together. That may mean spending more on their own defence - a demand by Mr Trump that is not unreasonable. It will also mean being sufficiently united to avoid being picked off singly by an American bully.

And yet European solidarity is fraying, thanks to the migrant crisis and the economic aftermath of the 2008 financial crash. On June 23, British voters could make the situation far worse if they decide to leave the EU. To strengthen Britain, and the EU itself, in anticipation of President Trump, they would be well advised to vote to stay in.

Asia has not been known for its solidarity. It has depended, perhaps excessively, on American influence to balance its rivalries. Japan, for example, has close ties with South-east Asian countries, but no formal security relationships with them. Both Japan and its nearest neighbour, South Korea, have longstanding security treaties with the US, but are hostile to each other.

Given the possibility of trade wars, currency wars and a renunciation of long-held security alliances within the next nine to 12 months, it is time to put regional solidarity ahead of old enmities and the forces of fragmentation. America's friends and allies need to start preparing for a less friendly America.

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  • Bill Emmott is a former editor-in- chief of The Economist.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 02, 2016, with the headline 'Preparing for President Trump'. Print Edition | Subscribe