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Foreign Policy

No Need to Worry Too Much About Trump Uncertainty

Nov 16 , 2016
  • Wu Zurong

    Research Fellow, China Foundation for Int'l Studies

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s fundamental policy ideology is, as he puts it, “America first”. This is the starting point of Trump’s policy-making process, and there is nothing strange or uncertain about it: This is the same way every head of state of any country in the world approaches state affairs. The Trump uncertainty comes from his campaign statements, which are sometimes very different from U.S. policies pursued by previous administrations, or in certain cases, lack continuity or agreement, and even appear to be self-contradictory. As people are anxious to know the Trump policy directions, they tend to take his campaign statements as the basic source materials for research and analysis. The record shows that about 80 percent of the campaign promises made by previous winning presidential candidates became actual policy goals. But Trump is totally different, and it is very important to understand the Trump peculiarity and smartness of his campaign statements. It lies in the fact that he made different statements to different audiences of voters, as he saw that the U.S. is so widely divided nowadays. His campaign statements were focused on winning votes, not on offering a policy roadmap for his administration. It could be boldly predicted that while some of his campaign promises would be fulfilled, many others would remain empty talk or would be carried out in a vastly different manner with big difficulties. Trump is likely to become the U.S. president who carries out fewest campaign promises during his tenure of office, though he personally would deny that.

Trump’s “America first” principle would also encourage him to exercise restraint when he tries to abrogate or rewrite some of the existing agreements or treaties between the U.S. and others. Although he expressed his intention in campaign statements to abrogate or rewrite U.S. agreements and treaties with others on trade, security, and other issues, he has to follow legal procedures to review whether abrogation or rewriting is in the best interests of the U.S. and its people before he acts. Moreover, the existing agreements and treaties are all very complicated, involving the interests of different groups in the U.S. Although the Republican Party has a simple majority in both House and Senate, no one can say with certainty that no Republicans in Congress would cross party lines to vote for the Democrats’ position. Therefore,no abrogation or rewriting would happen overnight. It would be a long and slow process even if such abrogation or rewriting has been proved necessary.

Trump’s “America first” principle will call for historic changes or transformations on both domestic and foreign policy fronts. Trump’s win comes from his firm alignment with those voters who are dissatisfied with the status quo. His supporters are eager for big changes. In the face of the deep divisions among Americans on race, gender, ideology, and national identity, Trump has to rethink how he can get together all Republicans by reconciliation, and unite most American voters by taking giant convincing steps to narrow, instead of widening, the income gap between the rich and the poor; and to govern state affairs for both the grass roots and master politicians, not by the politicians alone. He also has a lot of homework to do on whether the U.S. would continue to lead the world unilaterally, or pursue so-called neo-isolationist policies to save vast resources for fixing deep-rooted domestic problems.

The continuous widening income gap between the rich and the poor is the root cause of most, if not all, social problems under the capitalist monopoly political system. Although the economy is kept on growing at a mild pace after the international financial crisis, the income and wealth of the grass roots, and even the middle income class, have not gone up at a reasonable rate, while 5 or 10 percent of the rich people have managed to accumulate huge wealth steadily. This issue is so deep-rooted and difficult to resolve that people may doubt whether Trump and his work team have the courage and wisdom to confront the sharp challenges that any solution will require.

This election exposed the fact that politicians are surprisingly divorced from the grass roots. The stark urban-rural divide could tell part of the story. Hillary Clinton as a veteran politician won the support of the urban core voters, while Trump won about 75 percent of votes in the suburbs and rural areas. It is clear that Trump’s grass-roots appeal is the chief reason for his victory in the election. But now, as president-elect, he faces the daunting mission to lead the country for the grass roots with the key role still played by politicians.

His intended reduction of expenditure in international activities as as he suggested during the campaign has aroused concerns from many allies and partners. To what extent a reduction of its foreign affairs budget is in the best interests of the U.S. is another big question Trump has to confront. To save some resources from international activities for domestic use may be Trump’s chief consideration. So, quick expansion of U.S. role in international affairs doesn’t look likely in the near future. But remarkable shrinkage in U.S. diplomatic and military activities in the world will not happen very soon either. At this point, Trump’s foreign policy is still taking shape.  

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