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Foreign Policy

Strange but Familiar: a Cautious Look into Trump Diplomacy

Nov 28 , 2016
  • Zhu Feng

    Director, Institute of International Studies, Nanjing University
With the cabinet of United States President-elect Donald Trump gradually taking shape, speculations about his foreign policy orientation abound. What diplomatic policies would Trump present? What would they mean to the rest of the world? Analyzing these questions will help handle and stabilize China-US relations in the Trump era. We can assuredly exclude three things from Trump’s diplomatic options: neo-isolationism, mercantilism, neo-interventionism. The core of Trump’s foreign policies will be America-centric neo-pragmatism.
Trump repeatedly stated on the campaign trail that the US would shoulder fewer responsibilities for allies, asked such Asian allies as Japan and South Korea to share more cost of resident US troops, even suggesting he would let allies “protect themselves”. Such campaign rhetoric cannot be translated into real-world policies, essentially because the US will continue a strategy of US “uni-polar hegemony” in the Trump era. The core of such a strategy is the US maintaining its global military alliances, and, by means of such alliances, ensuring its dominance and strategic superiority in the global system. Trump may impose burdens on allies, but can’t change the mega strategy that has become a part of the elite consensus after the Cold War. 
The US headed toward “isolationism” after the 1919 Versailles Conference because America’s international proposals, featuring “Wilsonism”, had been refused by such old-time empires as the United Kingdom and France. The post-WWI America had no power advantage in the international system, and encountered policy frustrations in rebuilding post-war world order; that was the macro background of the rise of isolationism. Nowadays, the US not only enjoys a power advantage, but also has dominant positions in terms of both order and rules. Trump’s US has no reason or domestic political ground to go back to the so-called neo-isolationism.
Trump is an authentic, successful merchant, but it will be difficult for him to re-introduce “mercantilism” in foreign policies after assuming the US presidency. Until World War I, 19th-century US diplomacy had followed a typical mercantilist line. The expansion of American interests in the Far East and the “open-door” principle the US adopted in its China policy in 1899 were cases in point. In the 21st century, however, things are dramatically different with the US’ multifaceted policy advantages and rich experiences in managing the relations between market order, trade and financial rules, as well as commercial interests. Even though Trump has clamored about launching a “trade war” against China and asked Japan to further open its market, discussion of such issues will have to take into perspective the interaction between geo-politics, geo-strategy and geo-economics. Trump emphasizes safeguarding American business interests, keeping manufacturing in America, and significantly renovating and increasing investments in infrastructure; while dealing with China and Japan, he will inevitably utilize US geo-strategic tools. Trump’s nature as a businessman may endow his diplomacy with “deal-cutting” characteristics, but the Trump-era America will certainly continue highlighting long-term US geo-strategic interests.
The probability of Trump adopting neo-interventionism may be the lowest. Not because Trump is particularly passionate for peace, but because the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq after 2001 have made Americans aware that the neo-conservative hawks’ belief that the US can do anything anywhere and assume the role of a global “liberator” has been a disaster to their country. The Obama Administration withdrew US troops from Iraq and reduced military presence in Afghanistan, refused to launch ground wars in the “Jasmine revolution” in the Middle East and North Africa as well as in the Syrian civil war, and cut off links with “neo-conservatives’”, “neo-interventionism”. There is no reason for the Trump administration to renew what he sees as a failed approach. 
Washington will more likely shift toward a “neo-utilitarian” policy. The main intent of such a policy will be letting the US make a timely turn to new problems that demand its attention and about which society has achieved consensus, gain practical benefits in commerce, finance and market competitiveness, and outrun other countries in proposing new rules for international governance, all while preserving the US’ unchallengeable military advantages and strategic dominance. But that dominance would not be used to peddle American democratic values and global interventionist responsibilities it has assumed. Such inclinations have always been the mainstream in US diplomatic history. Present-day America does have various troubles and challenges in its face. In Trump’s eyes, the most important problem and challenge is interest distribution undesirable to the US has emerged in the process of liberal globalization based on US global responsibilities, which has hurt American interests and aroused indignation in white voters at home and strong reactions from the conservative mainstream.
Trump complained loudly about spending $6 trillion in the Middle East, saying the sum would have been enough for rebuilding roads, bridges, tunnels and airports at home that are getting outdated. Trump’s diplomacy will surely sustain the “America first” principle he has openly advocated for nearly 30 years. Specifically, it will be “American affairs first”, “American interests first”, and “American domestic development first”. Such a policy will deviate from the mainstream of post-Cold War US diplomacy – “liberal internationalism”. 
Such a neo-pragmatist orientation may very likely be most conspicuous in three aspects: First, the Trump administration may dump the TPP, but continue striving to highlight American market principles and standards in foreign trade, business and financial relations, hence seeking to adjust and develop international trade and financial systems in the US’ favor. Trump has a fixation with making sure the US no longer suffers “losses” in economic exchanges with China and Japan, and making sure international markets and investment and trade relations continue benefiting the US. It will be difficult for the Trump administration to “de-globalize”, instead, it will vociferously ask for American-style “re-globalization”. 
Second, he may push to dramatically increase military expenditure, while making advanced weaponry more affordable for the US military, directly pressure Russia and China into an arms race. This marks Republican diplomacy’s return to the 1980s Regan era, with an emphasis on consolidating US power advantages and pursuing peace with might. 
Third, he could choose to cooperate with Russia on Middle East and European issues, even to accept the “post-Crimea” European political landscape, reduce US diplomatic attention on the Middle East, and strive to cooperate with Russia so as to end the stalemate in Syria. 
Fourth, in the Asia-Pacific and Europe, he may encourage allies to assume more responsibilities and act more aggressively, and continue shifting the focus of global military deployment to the Asia-Pacific. Although it may no longer mention “pivoting to the Asia-Pacific”, the Trump administration will actually inherit and press ahead with such a strategy.
If such changes materialize in the Trump administration’s diplomatic strategy transition, they will inflict practical strategic and economic pressures on China. First, China-US conflicts over the renminbi exchange rate, degree of market openness, investment areas, state-owned firms and export subsidies will rise conspicuously, and American pressures for favorable changes in the Chinese market may be more forceful, specific and insistent. Second, the intensity of US strategic intervention and interference in the West Pacific area will not decrease conspicuously; alliance politics will remain the core of US Asia-Pacific diplomacy. Third, the impacts of “re-globalization” on Europe, the Middle East, and Latin America may very likely further complicate conditions for Chinese overseas investments and businesses in a certain period of time. Lower American market demand for imports will continue compromising Chinese efforts to boost foreign trade, and global demand growth will stay weak in a fairly long time. 
Fourth, adjustments in American industrial and business policies that are to come along with those in foreign policies will render China-US investment agreement negotiations even more difficult. The Trump-era US may very likely be both familiar and strange to us. Such a US will want to stimulate growth via neo-Keynesian tax cuts, encouraging exports and expanding infrastructure investments while aspiring to return to the aggressive posture of the Regan era in diplomacy, seeking peace with might. The question is: Can Trump become “a second Regan”?
No matter what diplomatic principles Trump chooses to follow, they will profoundly and extensively affect China-US relations. However, mutual dependence has reached such width and depth since they established diplomatic ties 37 years ago, particularly after Beijing proposed a “new-type major-power relationship”, China and the US are getting along generally well, in both bilateral and multilateral settings. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s phone conversation with the US president-elect on November 14 also set the constructive tone of China-US continuing cooperation, managing disputes, and actively pursuing new progress. The Trump administration’s China policy is still worth waiting for.
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