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Foreign Policy

The “Trumpquake” and U.S. Diplomacy

Nov 30 , 2016
  • Cui Liru

    Former President, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

Donald Trump’s triumph in the 2016 US presidential election was not only a shocker to many Americans, but also sent shock waves across the international community. The “Trumpquake” will be an extra-ordinary episode in the history of US presidential election.

The odd fruit of an unprecedented, ferocious political battle resulted from the reality that social and political polarization in America since 2008 has gone to the very extreme. The substantive contest has been between two major forces: On one side is the force consisting mostly of middle- and lower-level working white people who, with Trump as their spokesperson, advocate strongly nationalist and populist domestic and foreign policies, hold high the anti-establishment, anti-elite political banner, and pledge to fundamentally change the status quo. On the other side is the traditional establishment and elite class, people who strive to preserve vested power and political norms, and contain anti-establishment, populist political forces within the current political and social framework, hoping to ease tensions and contradictions in relatively mild, incremental manners.

As a result, the establishment has completely lost control, while populist and radical nationalist forces relish their triumph. For many people, such an outcome was more undesirable than surprising. This overthrow of existing US political order and social norms is actually a political crisis: The so-called Trumpquake is mostly about mainstream political forces and social elite’s panic.

The outcome of the election has shattered the Democratic Party’s “majority alliance”, and will reshape both parties’ political landscapes. The GOP not only has won the White House and retained control over both the House and Senate, but further expanded its majority advantages at state-level legislative and administrative offices. That means the process of economic and social reforms the Obama Administration has worked so hard in the past eight years to push ahead face the threat of reversal. The US political balance will become even more skewed, and society’s split will not be healed for a long time.

Undeniably both Trump and the voters and relevant political forces that have propelled him to the White House want badly to change the status quo of American domestic affairs and foreign policies. As a result, the future agendas of American economic, political and social changes will be dramatically different from those of the Obama era. It remains to be seen whether the main spindle will be a Trump agenda, a GOP agenda, or a blend of both.

A main aspect of people’s concern about Trump as US president is his personal temperament. A combination of self-centrism and pragmatism, Trump is free of the fetters of mainstream ideology and the principle of political correctness, with white supremacy ingrained deeply in his bones. He is convinced this remains a world where the law of the jungle prevails, and enshrines Hobbesianism and the “winner is king” credo; his headstrong, obstinate style requires his subordinates to be highly loyal and obedient; he can be unscrupulous in order to achieve his goals, but at the same time does not lack flexibility in tactics. In the next few years, it will be fascinating to observe how the “House of Cards” of conflicts and compromises between the Trump team and the establishment and elite in Washington D.C. unfolds.

Compared with his domestic policies, traditional American establishment and Western allies are more concerned about Trump’s foreign policies. Based on Trump’s remarks on US foreign trade and security policies as well as some major issues on the campaign trail, in the words of famous Brookings scholar Robert Kagan, people will see an America that focuses narrowly on “America first” interests, forsakes responsibilities for preserving international order, and returns to pre-WWII isolationism. In that case, the changes Trump will bring to future international relations will simply be immeasurable.

Now people are watching the power transfer in Washington with curiosity and anxiety, trying to find clues in the appointments and remarks Trump makes and the measures he takes that may foretell future American domestic and foreign policies. Judging from recent developments, Trump has begun to change tunes on some of his sensational statements during the campaign, and is starting to do some political fence-mending. Obviously Trump will not, cannot, as he bragged on the campaign trail, abruptly change the fundamental lines of US foreign policy and global strategy, or easily reverse major policies.

What determines the basic principles and overall posture of American diplomacy and global strategy has never been any individual president, but always the dominant forces representing Washington and the status of US comprehensive strength. Since the 20th century, when American diplomacy shifted from isolationism to internationalism, the starting points and goals have never deviated from the “America first” principle. In different periods, the differences between US foreign policies under different presidents were only about the paths and forms taken for promoting so-called American “national interests”. After WWII, the internationalist school has dominated American global diplomacy, shaping the unprecedented superpower status the US has enjoyed. In the nearly two decades after the Cold War, the fundamental and main driving force for the US has been to play the world’s policeman, trumpet globalization and preserve the US-dominated world order, the US’ unrivalled status as the world’s sole superpower and its interest in industrial and financial capital expansion.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, have significantly overburdened the US politically and economically. The financial crisis that broke out in 2008 exacerbated the decline of US strength from its pinnacle. Against such background, the diplomatic strategies of Obama, who got elected holding the banner of change, promoted the shrinking of US global force deployment, and shifting foreign trade and strategic focuses to the Asia-Pacific. Trump’s remarks on American diplomatic contraction also derive from such a general trend. He has loudly advocated the “America first” principle, emphasized that the US should no longer assume all responsibilities like before, catering to nationalist feelings at home while demanding higher protection fees from allies.

Trump needs to experience a process of transition from a businessman to a president — learning to be a US president. He met with Henry Kissinger, the most veteran and prestigious diplomatic advisor of the US establishment, after getting elected and listened to his advice. Kissinger said afterward that he was optimistic about the new president’s strategic decisiveness, and urged outsiders to avoid dwelling on some of Trump’s campaign rhetoric, and allow him some time. With the new president moving into the White House, the revolving door of the government will see a new team of ambitious individuals many of whom are unfamiliar faces. Some significant issues facing US diplomacy will to a great extent rest on the diplomatic philosophy, policy stance and professional knowledge and experience of corresponding officials in charge.

To sum up, Trump’s win was a major political earthquake, some old, fragile entities will inevitably give way to new ones, while the solid ones will stay and continue to function. Other things may suffer damage of various kinds and degrees and require repair. This may well be the American politics and diplomacy we will have to face in the future.

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