Although one should always be cautious about what is said on ‘the stump’, the few clues we have point to renewed US isolationism under a President Trump.
The ‘inevitable’ candidate?
On 26 February, Donald Trump took another significant step towards securing the Republican nomination when he won the endorsement of New Jersey Governor and former pres-idential candidate Chris Christie. Winning the backing of a heavyweight 'insider' like Mr Christie should more than negate any damage which was inflicted on Mr Trump by the joint efforts of Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio in the TV debate last week, which always looked likely to be too little too late in any case. Others in the Republican establishment will follow — indeed, at the time of writing Maine governor Paul LePage had done so already and another former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee (whose daughter joined ‘Team Trump’ earlier this month) was reportedly on the verge.
If the opinion polls are correct and Mr Trump now goes on to win nine of the eleven states up for grabs on 'Super Tuesday' (1 March) — and especially if he can also beat Ted Cruz in his home state of Texas — he will look to be on a home run and his momentum and endorsements will escalate further.
On this trajectory Mr Trump should have the nomination nailed down to all intents and purposes in the wake of the second 'Super Tuesday', ie 15 March — for sure if he beats Marco Rubio in Florida.
Can Mr Trump go on to win the White House? Less than two months ago, I would have said (did say) almost certainly not. And most opinion polls still have him trailing in a 'head-to-head' with Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic Party nominee (albeit, in the RealClear-Politics average, within the statistical margin for error), who remains the firm favourite in the betting.
If former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg does decide to run as an independent (and he has to decide by mid-March if he is to get on the ballot paper in all 50 states) it should significantly improve Mr Trump's prospects — the theory, with which I agree, being that Mr Bloomberg is likely to take more votes from the Democratic Party candidate, whoever s/he is, than he is from a Republican. But even if Mr Bloomberg stays out of the race (as I personally think he will) it would be unwise, in my view, to rule out the possibility of a Trump victory on 8 November.
It is not, therefore, too soon to start considering what US foreign policy might look like un-der a President Trump.
The return of isolationism?
The problem is that it is very hard to have a clear ‘feel’ for the answer to this question.
The first challenge is that, in stark contrast to other presidential candidates, Mr Trump has very few advisors on his team from whom one could pick clues. Indeed, as Demetri Se-vastopulo recently highlighted in the Financial Times, to date Mr Trump’s campaign has been pretty much “a one-man show”. And he has been particularly coy about his foreign policy advisors — despite repeatedly being pressed to name names — the only mention I can trace to date being of former New York Mayor Rudi Giuliani.
Much of what we may be able to glean therefore has to be based on what Mr Trump has said on the stump which should — as is generally the case — be treated with some cau-tion. Going back through TV debates and general reporting since the middle of last year, I have come up with the following.
• Mr Trump is firmly committed not to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). So, un-less Congress gets that done between the election and 20 January 2017, I think we can assume that the TPP would not happen; and even if it were ratified before he arrived in office, Mr Trump may tear it up, together with other trade agreements (possibly starting with NAFTA). The TPP, remember, is not only important in economic terms but is also part of America’s ‘strategic pivot’ to Asia designed in part to reassure US allies of Wash-ington’s commitment to the region as China increasing assertiveness.
• He says he would slap big tariffs on all imports from China (possibly imported Japanese and other autos too since he seems determined to get Americans to buy cars built in America). Whether or not he can be taken totally at his word on this, I think we have to assume that he would be highly protectionist generally in his trade policies and that trade disputes would escalate in both number and seriousness. I can see this potentially hav-ing a profoundly negative impact on the World Trade Organisation (WTO), ie either its dispute settlement system being swamped or, possibly, the US (never wholehearted about the WTO, in my view) feeling it has to withdraw from the Organisation altogether. Either option comes with a heavy risk of tit-for-tat trade measures at a time when pro-tectionist sentiment is in any case rising, as history tells us we should expect at the end of a period of hegemony, and world trade is already struggling.
• He would certainly have to do something about undocumented migrants living in the US even though rounding up and deporting 13 million or so people looks to be completely impractical; similarly, getting Mexico to pay for a wall. But this does not mean that we would not see other draconian measure — physical and non-physical (eg tougher visa restrictions) —to reinforce border security.
• I think he would stand by his commitment to try to get Nato members, Japan and South Korea to pay the cost of US troops etc stationed there — or at least a significant portion of the costs (1). At best, for transatlantic relations that would mean a major row in Nato, at worst the break-up of the Organisation; so, no wonder Russian President Vladimir Putin is an open admirer of Mr Trump. As for Asia, together with scrapping the TPP, it would revive fears (recently slightly dimmed thanks to more engagement from President Barack Obama) about Washington’s commitment to the region and willingness to step up in the face of China’s muscle-flexing, likely accelerating the existing arms race there and further heightening tensions around maritime borders.
Pull all this together and it would be fair to say that it looks like a Trump presidency could see a major revival of the historically periodic phenomenon of US isolationism.
Back to the future?
As far as I can find, few people have been writing seriously about all this so far; but a re-cent article by the Financial Times’s Gideon Rachman is a good starting point. As Mr Rachman says, it looks like Mr Trump could be very open to the Vladimir Putin/Xi Jinping desire for 19th century-style spheres of influence — which would make East Europeans and, as I have already suggested, Southeast Asians in particular very nervous indeed.
All this being said, some leading Republicans, notably former Senator Bob Dole, were ar-guing recently that the party should get behind Mr Trump, mainly to block the candidature of Ted Cruz but also because they felt that Mr Trump was more manipulate-able on policy. That could be right-ish. But I have to say I think it is a serious misreading of both Mr Trump’s self-belief and the real depth of anger in much of America on which Mr Trump has fed and which is demanding putting up the shutters in the firm conviction that a very small number of Americans have allegedly made fortunes out of globalisation at the ex-pense of the vast majority (the proverbial ’99%’).
If Mr Trump does gets into the White House, unless he was a very unusual first-term president indeed he would immediately be thinking about a second term. Whether or not he genuinely believes in his pre-election commitments, he would know that he got to where he is because he appealed over the heads of the 'establishment' to the ordinary people and that that is the source of his power/authority.
One way or another, President Donald Trump would have to try to deliver on at least some of his pre-election promises or face a lot of very disillusioned voters come 2020.
(1) To be fair, although Mr Trump seems intent on going a big step further, the US has long been arguing for more ‘burden-sharing’ from its key allies, to little avail to date in Europe but with more success in the Pacific as is underlined by the recently announced Australian 80% increase in defence spending over the next decade.
Alastair Newton is a former member of HM Diplomatic Service who subsequently spent ten years as a political analyst in the City. Now independent, he is co-founder and director of Alavan Business Advisory based in Livingstone, Zambia.