Commentary | 22 March 2017

Trump takes allies back to 19th century global order

Originally published in the Nikkei Asian Review on 20 March 2017.

Originally published in the Nikkei Asian Review on 20 March 2017.

The administration of US President Donald Trump poses a unique and difficult challenge for Washington's democratic allies because of its 'America First' foreign policy and cavalier treatment of leaders around the world.

For more than 70 years, the US has led a liberal international order based on alliance systems, an open global economy, the primacy of rules and institutions, and the promotion of democracy and human rights. Its friends in Asia and other nations sought and maintained alliances with Washington largely because of its role as leader of this liberal order, which underpinned both the security and prosperity of its allies.

Now, that leadership is in jeopardy and – if you take Trump's rhetoric at face value – the US seems poised to become a normal great power, looking out only for its own narrow interests with no greater purpose.

Trump did not win the presidency on foreign policy issues. Indeed, polls showed that his rival, Hillary Clinton, was more trusted on this issue and that Americans remain supportive of alliances and trade. But Trump is the first postwar president to oppose the liberal order as he seeks an 'America First' foreign policy. This is no political convenience on his part. Trump has a 30-year record of talking about a self-centered US foreign policy.

Trump's overarching world view is that the US is in decline because it is being taken advantage of by other countries, particularly its friends and allies. Trump has three visceral beliefs that he has spoken about repeatedly since the mid-1980s. He is deeply skeptical of America's alliances and believes that the US should only help other nations if it is directly compensated for it. He has opposed every free trade agreement the U.S. has signed since World War II and supports a more mercantilist approach. He is also supportive of authoritarian strongmen such as Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But it has not been plain sailing for Trump. These beliefs are sincerely held, but they are simplistic and underdeveloped. They are often internally inconsistent. The US foreign policy establishment and many Republicans in Congress are united in opposition to them.

The America First position is only held by a tiny minority within the Trump administration. Trump has a small coterie of advisers, most notably his chief strategist Steve Bannon and the protectionist economist Peter Navarro, who share his outlook, but the heads of the US Defense, State and Treasury departments, along with the new National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, are all mainstreamers when it comes to protecting US alliances and the global economy.

Divided government

The result is a structural incoherence in which the America First faction is in constant combat with the mainstreamers, who are in a stronger position to win most, although not all, of the day-to-day fights. The main risk is that Trump's America First faction may be particularly influential when a crisis erupts, given the unavoidable centrality of the commander-in-chief.

As they survey the new landscape in Washington, America's allies can be forgiven for being perturbed and confused. Who really speaks for the US? Should they stand up to a president many people find anathema to their values? Is the liberal international order at an end? Should nations in Asia and elsewhere go it alone and look out for their own interests instead of pursuing a broader vision of international order? And for America's Asian allies – from Australia to South Korea – is the question of whether they should distance themselves from Washington and acquiesce in organizing the region based on China's security and economic preferences.

It is right and proper that America's allies should have this debate among its citizens and with each other. But when they do, they should remember some fundamental principles. Foreign policy choices are not just about trade deals, an alliance or the controversies of the day. Fundamentally, foreign policy choices are about values as well as interests and the type of world we want to live in. In 2017, there are two worlds on offer.

One world emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union and is built around a liberal international order. The second is a 19th century-style multipolar world order where each great power carves out its own spheres of influence, with China preeminent in East Asia, Russia in Eastern Europe, and the US in the Americas. In this world, each great power sticks to its own backyard except when it is directly threatened or can profit from intervention. All nations pursue their own narrow interests, discarding rules, values and any notions of fairness.

It is hard to exaggerate how different the world – and each region – would be under the latter model and how detrimental it would be to their citizens. The 19th century world was one of mercantilism, empires, domination and conflict.

In his support for protectionism and nationalism and opposition to globalism, alliances and free trade, Trump would usher in a 19th century model of world politics. Yet he faces fierce opposition at home. This goes beyond mere rhetoric. Congress threatened to overrule him if he lifted sanctions on Russia. After his call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, there was a groundswell of bipartisan criticism from congressional leaders about the president's behavior. There is a concerted effort to empower mainstreamers within the Trump administration.

America's US allies face a dilemma. By giving up on the US and the liberal international order, they would be advancing Trump's ultimate goal of a 19th century world. Cutting deals with China or Russia and abandoning broader aspirations would not only flout democratic values and entail massive costs and risks but would also be the ultimate endorsement of Trump's worldview.

The better alternative is to work with mainstream elements within the Trump administration and promote cooperation among regional democracies such as Australia, Japan and India to prevent a general unraveling of the liberal order and buy time for the US to deliver its ultimate verdict on Trumpism through the election process, which may come sooner rather than later. Too much has been accomplished over the past 70 years to prematurely surrender hopes of a better world.