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Foreign Policy

Neutrality: Donald Trump’s Best Choice for the U.S.?

Nov 17 , 2016
  • Teng Jianqun

    Director of the Department of U.S. Studies, China Institute of International Studies
The victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election has been claimed by some experts and media to be a revolution by Americans in the new era. After Trump has become the president-elect, many Chinese are asking whether this is good news for China taking account of his background and his remarks during the campaign. Let us look at it from the ideology of neutrality of the United States.
I. The neutral mentality in the United States
It was a long tradition for the United States to maintain neutral diplomacy, especially when it was weak and under development. We can at least have two specific case studies in this regard.
The first was the years immediately after its independence. When the country became independent from the major European powers, the founders of the country declared its neutrality to the outside world.
The United States was the first national state that was liberated from colonial governance in 18th century. The United Kingdom and other European powers’ competition extended to North America. John Adams once pointed out that “America had been involved in European wars. From the very beginning, it was a football played by the European powers.” Even far away from the Europe, the competition among the major powers there extended their struggle to North America. The most important task for the newborn state was to increase its comprehensive power and develop its economy and improve the social life.
Some influential theorists pushed for a neutral diplomacy. According to Thomas Paine, independence was not only about getting rid of the colonial dominance of the U.K., but also to avoid the war and politics in Europe: The future relations between the America and the European powers should be peaceful and friendly. He said that “neutrality is a task force, which is better than any fighting vessels”. The main purpose of neutrality by the United States was to have a peaceful environment and to have trade with European countries. It did not want to take sides among the major powers. On the contrary, the trade relations with European countries would give the United States a chance to get benefit from the trade as well as stable relations.
Neutrality in the early years of the United States did create a peaceful and friendly environment for its domestic development. In 1793, George Washington concluded,“It appears that a state of war exists between Austria, Prussia, Sardinia, Great Britain, and the Netherlands on the one part, and France on the other. The duty and interest of the United States require that they should adopt a conduct friendly and impartial toward the warring powers. I have thought fit to declare the position of the United States to observe a conduct towards those powers respectfully; and warn our citizens to avoid all acts which may in any manner tend to go against this position.”
The second case was the early years of World War I. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson declared neutrality the same day as United Kingdom declared its war against Germany on Aug4, 1914. In his // State of the Union speech was in December// address, President Wilson stated that, “The effect of the war upon the United States will depend upon what American citizens say and do. Every man who really loves America will act and speak in the true spirit of neutrality, which is the spirit of impartiality and fairness and friendliness to all concerned.”
The U.S. again benefited greatly from the neutral policy. The most impressive part of neutrality was the trade and financial deals with European major powers. In 1914, the U.S. exported $754 million in products to the U.K. and France while export to Germany was $245 million. In 1916, the U.S. export to the U.K. and France was $ 2.75 billion while the export to Germany was $ 29 million.
The lessons we can learn from these cases both in peace and war time should be: A neutrality policy was an important facet of diplomacy, which prevented the intervention from major powers and avoided involvement in the war when the United States was weak. The neutrality policy to some extent was an expedient measure for the country to have time to become stronger and more powerful.
II. The current status of the United States
The ending of the Cold War gave the United States a so-called “peace bonus”. The victory against Iraq in 1991 enhanced the U.S. belief that no opponents in the world could challenge its security interests.
The United States stated that it was enjoying strategic depth, which means that the United States in the short term and in the long run would have no direct opponents. So the United States believed that it could withdraw or reduce its military presence in Europe and the Asia Pacific region. It only took two or three years for the United States to shift its policy and declare that it was preparing for two major regional conflicts simultaneously, in the Middle East and in Korean Peninsula.
When Bill Clinton assumed the U.S. presidency, the United States did enjoy fast development. President George W. Bush launched several military interventions in the world, meanwhile the United States was involved in a 10-year long anti-terrorist war, which became the turning point for the decline of the United States. The intervention in regional affairs and the war waged by the United States comprehensively hurt the hard power and soft power of the country. When Obama took office in 2008, the United States started its new round of financial crisis. The close of banks gave a worldwide impact on the economic situation. Personally speaking, Obama is an idealistic leader, with his initiative for a Nuclear Free World in April 2009 in Prague and later for medical-care reform, which has almost exhausted all his political assets in Washington. The economy has been recovering moderately in recent years. We can see the encouraging figures each month, the GDP, the employment, etc. However, the personal income of the public has had no big growth.
The standoff between the White House and Capitol Hill over the ceiling of the United States Treasury bonds was just one side of the power struggle in Washington, which led to a government shutdown for nearly three weeks in 2013. Obama had to cancel his visit to four ASEAN countries in October that year. Also in Syria, when the Syrian government was revealed to be using chemical weapons, the United States warned that it would use military force against the Syrian government. However, at the last minute, Obama decided to withdraw the troops. We can say the current situation home and abroad has already made the U.S. careful in managing the affairs. The policy adopted by him was actually a compromise between the strategic target and its power.
The clash between the administration and the Republican Party controlled congress is another example to understand the political standoff in the country. Proposals by the administration would be denied by the congress. The Treasure bonds will reach 20 trillion U.S. dollars when the new president takes his office on 20th, January 2017.
III. What Trump can give the United States?
The possibility for Donald Trump to return to a “neutral” policy comes from factors at home and abroad. During the campaign, Trump repeatedly addressed that his policy should be “America First”. We can sense that some implications of “America First” are rooted in the neutral history and the current reality of the country.
First, the 2016 election was just an echo of U.S. society. The extreme struggle between the two major parties, Republican and Democratic, has completely destroyed the basic foundation of the power-sharing in political life. No significant act has been adopted since 2010 after the medical care act passed in the Congress. For Donald Trump at this moment, the No. 1 job is to unify the party and make full use of the Republican majority in the Congress to implement any changes of political life in Washington. Some said Trump just used the flag of Republican Party but ran as an individual candidate to the White House, but after the result of the vote was announced, no strong counter-reaction from the Republican Party has been seen against his being the new U.S. president.
Second, the recovery of the U.S. economy also requires the Trump administration to give priority to domestic development in the industrial and financial sectors. The challenges are in how Donald Trump can manage the inward economic policy. Extending the history of U.S. neutrality, he will continue the withdrawal from intervention in regional affairs, especially clashes in the Asia-Pacific, the Middle East, and Europe. Meanwhile, Trump will intensify the U.S. trade talks with all countries for the benefit of domestic development, but the new president will increase the threshold to trade relations with China and some other countries including using tariff, lawsuits, currency policy, and even international mechanism to promote the interests of the United States as he sees them.
Third, the election of Donald Trump also will have a great impact on international relations. The new administration will probably soften its position towards major powers. As we all know, the stability of international community has always relied on the stable relations among major powers. During Obama’s administration, the United States adopted a foreign policy against two major powers at the same time. According to the national military strategy issued last year, the United States was to take Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and terrorism as the five main challenges for the United States. It’s certain that Donald Trump will warm up relations with Russia and with President Vladimir Putin personally.
In conclusion, while we are waiting to see President-elect Donald Trump clear-cut foreign policy, we can look to the neutral history of the United States. When the country was weak, the United States would refrain somewhat and avoid involvement in world affairs. The situation is different today, and a neutrality by Trump will have its own features that are different from the previous neutrality. As Trump scales back U.S. involvement in international affairs and the U.S. becomes more inward-looking, Trump’s push for trade advantages will trigger more trade wars with other countries, which will also impact the world trade order. The United States may return to a new round of traditional neutrality, testing that approach to achieve good recovery from current political and economic difficulties.
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