My Take on Trump and Asia for Newsweek Japan: He’s Too Lazy to Push for Real Change, so Don’t Worry


2016.6.14号(6/ 7発売)

I write a monthly column for Newsweek Japan, and below is this month’s English original (on pages 36-37 of the edition pictured).

I haven’t written much about Trump, mostly because he says so little of value in my area, nor do I believe that he really means what he says, because he changes so often and puts so little thought into foreign policy.

So my first comment to Asians who ask is: relax, because even if he wins, he isn’t likely to push through some major geopolitical retrenchment, because of the effort that would take in Washington. Nor is he likely to spark a huge trade war with China for the same reason. The bureaucratic resistance would be massive, and I don’t buy it at all that Trump has the tenacity, focus, intelligence, or interest in any policy issue necessary to undo long-standing precedents such as the decades-old US engagement in Asia.

If Obama can’t get us out of the Middle East, do you really believe Trump will take us out of Asia? Forget it. Perhaps it is the teacher in me, but, like Regan, Bush 2, Palin, and Fox before him, Trump’s defining intellectual feature is laziness, and it will take a helluva lot of work to change the US architecture out here. So forget it. Instead, think about what Trump really cares about – his show-boating, made-for-TV image as manly, tough, a winner, and so on.

President Trump will spend all his time and energy chasing whatever the polls say voters want in a desperate effort to stay popular. What he will really use US government power for, where he will show genuine commitment and focus, is in pursuing his media enemies Nixon-style, and enhancing his business interests. In that sense, he will govern like the CPP or Putin – chasing after journalists, feathering his nest, changing laws and regulations that damage his businesses, and so on.

So don’t worry Asia. Trump is too intellectually lazy to learn, too uniformed to understand, and too narcissistic to care. Trump is a threat to the First Amendment and check-and-balances, not the American architecture in Asia.

My essay follows the jump.

 

As of early May, Donald Trump has become the presumptive nominee of the Republication party for the presidential race this fall. Most polls show him losing to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, but a major shock, such as a Paris/Brussels-style terrorist attack in the West, could lift him to victory. Asian elites are starting to pay attention to his foreign policy pronouncements, and Trump appears to be promising radical change.

I say ‘appears’ however, because Trump is both protean and noticeably ignorant in his policy beliefs. It is highly likely that Trump will change his positions once in office, because his over-riding goal in office will be grandiose self-promotion and re-election, not policy or ideology. He will treat his presidency as a popularity contest and so will likely choose the paths of least resistance or whatever policies poll well. Any new policy toward Asia may well be abandoned if resistance to it is significant, or if his disinterest and ignorance undermine the needed presidential will to push major change. Trump simply may not have the impulse-control and mental discipline in order to push deep changes on long-standing structures like the American architecture in the Pacific.

Assuming he does though, his foreign policy beliefs now deserve some examination in Asia. Trump’s driving forces seem be an ‘America First’ nationalism, and the curious notion that any diplomatic ‘deal’ is automatically a zero-sum game in which the winner is ‘ripping off’ (a favorite Trump verb) the loser.

America First

Most politicians are nationalist of course, but the expression ‘America First,’ which Trump uses, dates back to the interwar period (1919-1939). It signals a disinterest in US involvement in foreign alliances and conflicts, hostility to non-European immigration, and a rejection of US global hegemony. In this way, Trump would be a radical break from US policy since World War II. Every American president since Franklin Roosevelt (1933-45) has embraced a global role for the US and supported if not expanded the architecture of that role – alliances, bases, international organizations, the use of American military power far from its shores, free trade, a globalized US dollar, and so on.

American elites are nearly monolithic in their support for an internationalist foreign policy of American leadership. No major political figure in the US advocates sustained US retrenchment. Indeed just a decade ago, it was the aggressive, almost imperial, neoconservative vision of American power that dominated the Republican party. Were Trump to try to undo US deep, global engagement, it would be a gigantic, unprecedented shift in US grand strategy.

Better Deals

Besides this rejection of postwar internationalism, Trump also seem have taken from his New York real estate career the position that negotiations are never positive-sum and that ‘losing’ in such a deal is sign of weakness and stupidity. Trump’s discussion of trade and overseas basing particularly illustrates this zero-sum mindset.

Trump insists that trade has winners and losers, and that the US is regularly losing (to China, Mexico, Japan, and so on). He has hinted at leaving NAFTA and would almost certainly abandon the Tran-Pacific Partnership in favor of bilateral negotiations in which the US would use market access to force terms on trade partners. He speaks similarly of US basing, where he routinely insists that US allies need to pay more for US military assistance. He has threatened US withdrawal if payment is not forthcoming. This discussion has included Japan, where Trump has suggested that Japan develop nuclear weapons so that it might defend itself against North Korea and China.

This too would dramatically reorient US strategy. Since the war, the US has broadly supported free trade and usually lead on trade deals such as the creation of the World Trade Organization. Similarly, I can think of no US figure who has ever conceived of US alliance relationships in mercenary terms with a strong emphasis on getting paid.

Where did This Come From?

Trump is a terrible messenger for these ideas. His buffonishness, authoritarianism, crypto-racism, and staggering ignorance make him an appalling candidate. But he did win the Republican primary, and he has connected with the white working class in the United States as no candidate has in more than a generation.

When he complains about globalization destroying jobs, he is channeling the anxiety of poor and lower income Americans who have seen blue-collar jobs disappear. When he seeks to halt illegal immigration, he reflects blue-collar anxiety over cheap labor and cultural alienation. When he insists that the US get a better deal for its military commitments, he is reflecting the widespread post-Iraq belief that the US fights unnecessary wars.

Educated white collar professionals, whose preferences US foreign policy now reflect, dislike this message. Free trade means cheap imports for China. The US global architecture means they can travel, speak English, and use the dollar. Immigration brings a cultural diversity they enjoy rather than find threatening. But these views have been obviously over-represented in US politics for decades. Globalism has created an anxious lower middle class in the United States, and Trump is the great explosion of their anger.

As of early May, Donald Trump has become the presumptive nominee of the Republication party for the presidential race this fall. Most polls show him losing to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, but a major shock, such as a Paris/Brussels-style terrorist attack in the West, could lift him to victory. Asian elites are starting to pay attention to his foreign policy pronouncements, and Trump appears to be promising radical change.

I say ‘appears’ however, because Trump is both protean and noticeably ignorant in his policy beliefs. It is highly likely that Trump will change his positions once in office, because his over-riding goal in office will be grandiose self-promotion and re-election, not policy or ideology. He will treat his presidency as a popularity contest and so will likely choose the paths of least resistance or whatever policies poll well. Any new policy toward Asia may well be abandoned if resistance to it is significant, or if his disinterest and ignorance undermine the needed presidential will to push major change. Trump simply may not have the impulse-control and mental discipline in order to push deep changes on long-standing structures like the American architecture in the Pacific.

Assuming he does though, his foreign policy beliefs now deserve some examination in Asia. Trump’s driving forces seem be an ‘America First’ nationalism, and the curious notion that any diplomatic ‘deal’ is automatically a zero-sum game in which the winner is ‘ripping off’ (a favorite Trump verb) the loser.

America First

Most politicians are nationalist of course, but the expression ‘America First,’ which Trump uses, dates back to the interwar period (1919-1939). It signals a disinterest in US involvement in foreign alliances and conflicts, hostility to non-European immigration, and a rejection of US global hegemony. In this way, Trump would be a radical break from US policy since World War II. Every American president since Franklin Roosevelt (1933-45) has embraced a global role for the US and supported if not expanded the architecture of that role – alliances, bases, international organizations, the use of American military power far from its shores, free trade, a globalized US dollar, and so on.

American elites are nearly monolithic in their support for an internationalist foreign policy of American leadership. No major political figure in the US advocates sustained US retrenchment. Indeed just a decade ago, it was the aggressive, almost imperial, neoconservative vision of American power that dominated the Republican party. Were Trump to try to undo US deep, global engagement, it would be a gigantic, unprecedented shift in US grand strategy.

Better Deals

Besides this rejection of postwar internationalism, Trump also seem have taken from his New York real estate career the position that negotiations are never positive-sum and that ‘losing’ in such a deal is sign of weakness and stupidity. Trump’s discussion of trade and overseas basing particularly illustrates this zero-sum mindset.

Trump insists that trade has winners and losers, and that the US is regularly losing (to China, Mexico, Japan, and so on). He has hinted at leaving NAFTA and would almost certainly abandon the Tran-Pacific Partnership in favor of bilateral negotiations in which the US would use market access to force terms on trade partners. He speaks similarly of US basing, where he routinely insists that US allies need to pay more for US military assistance. He has threatened US withdrawal if payment is not forthcoming. This discussion has included Japan, where Trump has suggested that Japan develop nuclear weapons so that it might defend itself against North Korea and China.

This too would dramatically reorient US strategy. Since the war, the US has broadly supported free trade and usually lead on trade deals such as the creation of the World Trade Organization. Similarly, I can think of no US figure who has ever conceived of US alliance relationships in mercenary terms with a strong emphasis on getting paid.

Where did This Come From?

Trump is a terrible messenger for these ideas. His buffonishness, authoritarianism, crypto-racism, and staggering ignorance make him an appalling candidate. But he did win the Republican primary, and he has connected with the white working class in the United States as no candidate has in more than a generation.

When he complains about globalization destroying jobs, he is channeling the anxiety of poor and lower income Americans who have seen blue-collar jobs disappear. When he seeks to halt illegal immigration, he reflects blue-collar anxiety over cheap labor and cultural alienation. When he insists that the US get a better deal for its military commitments, he is reflecting the widespread post-Iraq belief that the US fights unnecessary wars.

Educated white collar professionals, whose preferences US foreign policy now reflect, dislike this message. Free trade means cheap imports for China. The US global architecture means they can travel, speak English, and use the dollar. Immigration brings a cultural diversity they enjoy rather than find threatening. But these views have been obviously over-represented in US politics for decades. Globalism has created an anxious lower middle class in the United States, and Trump is the great explosion of their anger.

6 thoughts on “My Take on Trump and Asia for Newsweek Japan: He’s Too Lazy to Push for Real Change, so Don’t Worry

  1. You stupid millennial’s don’t even know how to spell his name correctly. It’s “Reagan”. ::Pshh::

  2. Pingback: What a Trumpish GOP would Mean for Asia: Reduced Trade & Migration, and More Defense Spending | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  3. Pingback: What a Trumpish GOP would Mean for Asia: Reduced Trade & Migration, and More Defense Spending - Think Research Expose | Think Research Expose

  4. Pingback: Trump and Northeast Asian Nuclearization: Not as a Terrible an Idea as You’ve Heard | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  5. Pingback: US Election and Northeast Asia: Clinton’s Status Quo vs. the Great Orange Unknown | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

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