Trump and an ill-defined world

Donald Trump and Malcolm Turnbull have focused on the immediate threat to regional security posed by North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and expressed solidarity in the face of Pyongyang’s recklessness.

In a 30-minute phone call they canvassed various options in dealing with a North Korean menace, including increasing pressure on China to use its leverage more effectively to pressure Pyongyang to wind back its provocations. This is stock standard diplomacy between allies at moments like these.

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What is missing in all of this is a clear sense of an overarching American strategy in dealing with immediate crises and longer-term challenges such as those posed by China’s rise.

"What might be regarded as slightly encouraging in all of this is Trump is now served by a team of professionals who can be expected to resist unhedged views.” - Tony Walker

Much importance, therefore, rests on the release in the next month or so of what is shaping as the most-anticipated National Security Strategy statement of any post-World War II president going back to Ronald Reagan.

This will be the seventeenth NSS since Reagan’s first effort in 1987. What has characterised these statements through the presidencies of George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama is their consistency.

Thus, statement-after-statement has emphasised America’s strength and global influence rests on the power of its example: in other words its values.  

All statements, in the words of a useful primer by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “stressed that the success of this approach depends on sustaining an international system of trade and economic interdependence that benefits all”.


This might be said to be the reverse of the sort of mercantilism practiced during the zenith of British imperialism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries or of other empires of an earlier period.

However, since World War II, a new world economic order given birth in the Bretton Woods agreement of 1944 has fostered a sustained era of economic prosperity led by the United States and based on a consensus open trade and open borders best serves the interests of the majority, and the US and the West in particular.

The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade signed in 1947 by 23 nations in Geneva, including Australia, bolstered a global commitment to trade liberalisation which has moved in fits and starts over the years.

Now that process is in doubt - if not in jeopardy - as the new American president espouses views which are at best unformed (and therefore malleable) and at worst pose a threat to a world economic order constructed painstakingly over decades.

Trump’s “America First” rhetoric on the campaign trail and his initial actions as President, while still, presumably, under the influence of arch-nationalist adviser Steve Bannon, have not been encouraging.

Bannon has now exited the White House.

Trump’s abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade protocol aimed at creating a free trade zone of Asia and the Pacific, and in the process balancing China’s economic surge, sent a discouraging message to America’s natural allies in the region.

His withdrawal from the Paris Climate Change agreement was equally disappointing and suggested Washington had reverted to a form of isolationism as yet undefined.

That is where things stand as Trump’s national security team, led by National Security Adviser HR McMaster, puts the finishing touches to the National Security Statement.

What might be regarded as slightly encouraging in all of this is Trump himself is now served by a team of professionals, including McMaster who can be expected to resist unhedged views expressed by the president on the campaign trail.

A useful clue

A useful clue to the thinking of presidential advisers resides in an op-ed item in the Wall Street Journal written by McMaster and Gary Cohn, director of the president’s National Economic Council. They stated “America first does not mean America alone”.

In the same WSJ op-ed McMaster and Cohn also observed ‘’the world was not a ‘global community’, but an arena where nations, non-governmental actors, and business engage and compete for advantage”.

That observation has prompted concern that a Trump administration will revert, as the Carnegie Endowment authors stated, to a “kind of political and economic nationalism from an earlier era”.

None of this is pre-ordained. If we have learned anything from the early stages of the Trump presidency it is a president, unschooled in foreign policy and lacking a well-defined worldview, will not necessarily fit stereotypes constructed for him.

In other words, and whatever streams of consciousness might have been committed to Trump’s Twitter feed, or in remarks off the cuff, these don’t necessarily reflect where he’ll end up.

What seems certain is the tenor of this latest NSS will deviate somewhat from its predecessors in the sense Trump will want to keep faith with his base which expects a less accommodating position on trade.

Trump’s insistence on a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is part of this re-orientation.

From an Australian perspective the hope is exigencies of America’s global leadership role – whether Trump welcomes this burden or not – will be respected in the NSS and a more conventional presidency will emerge in the sense that isolationist tendencies will recede.

If that doesn’t prove to be the case, the Carnegie Endowment paper sketches out a worst case in which it says of Trump’s initial offerings:

“Taken together, his statements and decisions suggest a neo-mercantilist strategy, in which the United States role in the world would be primarily transactional and adversarial, the broad consensus in favor of free trade would be sacrificed to satisfy specific domestic constituencies, and the tools of US statecraft would be oriented primarily toward a narrow definition of self-interest,” the paper says.

Pertinent questions

In its conclusion the Carnegie Endowment paper poses three pertinent questions about the direction in which a Trump-led administration might be heading, and ones which have particular relevance to Australia given China’s centrality to Australian foreign policy and economic well-being.

First, does the administration view trade in both economic and strategic terms as a means of advancing America’s economic interests and promoting its values? If it does not the world has a problem.

Nothing would be more disruptive to a global trading environment than an America which stepped back from a commitment to the continued liberalisation of trade as a means of securing a stable strategic environment.

Among risks in such a scenario would be a trade war with China. This would be a devastating outcome from Australia’s point of view.

Second, the US needs to develop a policy to deal with China’s rise that accommodates domestic pressures for job security in communities losing out in a process of globalisation.

As the Carnegie paper puts it, it means “forthrightly acknowledging that the United States has huge competitive advantages in an open, integrated global economy, while devoting attention to the industries and communities that are losing out.”

Finally, the US needs to work out how to cooperate constructively with China and other major powers to advance mutual interests, as it simultaneously competes with them.

That will prove to be the real test of American leadership in this next period, and one which will not be solved by lack of certainty about a new administration’s protocols about dealing with a world more challenging and complex than it was at the time of the last NSS in 2015.

If the US chooses to step back from a framework in which it has provided steadfast leadership since 1944 disaster beckons.

These are the stakes inherent in a new blueprint for American engagement.   

Tony Walker is an author and former Washington correspondent, international editor, Middle East editor and senior political editor at The Australian Financial Review and The Financial Times.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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