Author: Editorial Board, ANU
The election of Donald Trump to the US presidency in 2016 forced many to revise their assumptions about the nexus between the United States’ internal socio-political landscape and its role in international affairs. Trump’s first presidential term exposed the potential of an elite and popular constituency for isolationism, protectionism and xenophobia that was until then known to be influential at the margins, but thought not capable of capturing control of the US political system.
One Trump presidential term is a misfortune; two looks like carelessness. But the idea that the upcoming midterm elections could mark the first milestone in a return to power for Trump and his movement has to be taken seriously.
The background factors in Trump’s 2016 win are still present: accelerating economic change, growing divides between Americans on the basis of culture, class and geography, and widespread disenchantment with political elites that in some pockets of the electorate extends to a burn-it-all-down attitude to establishment politics. On top of these social and political realities is an electoral system that can generate victories for a candidate or party that loses the popular vote — as Trump did in 2016 and the Republicans may do in upcoming congressional polls — and a right-wing media complex, centred on the Fox News Channel, that operates as a Trumpian America First propaganda outfit.
As attention is turning to the midterm elections scheduled for November, this hypothesis is getting its first major test since Trump departed office in shameful circumstances in early 2021.
As Gary Hufbauer writes in this week’s lead article, recent evidence from Republican Party primaries reveals how Trump still looms heavily over the US political landscape. ‘Trump’s [primary] endorsements, alongside the retirement of several Republican officeholders who disagreed with his policies, strengthened his control over the party’. Meanwhile, ‘record inflation, abetted by massive stimulus in 2020 and 2021 and super-easy monetary policy through to February 2022, has practically eliminated Democratic party hopes of retaining control of Congress’ in November.
Does this bode ill for Joe Biden’s hopes of re-election to the presidency in 2024? Some figures within his own party seem to believe it does, and are keeping their options open in case Biden decides not to seek re-election. But it’s not clear that the Democrats, themselves divided between leftists and moderates, have an obviously more electable option than the incumbent.
With Biden’s political standing so uncertain, and the stakes of preventing a return of the Trump cabal to power so ominous, the administration can’t afford to take risky policy stances in the near term. For these reasons, ‘political arithmetic seemingly compels Biden to follow Trump’s international policies, even while he pursues a different domestic course’, says Hufbauer.
This isn’t to say that there is no difference between the Trump and Biden approaches to the world: from NATO to Taiwan, where Trump saw the US alliance commitments as bargaining chips in a cross-national transaction, Biden takes them seriously as the building blocks of the US role in global security that they are.
After years of criticism about the lack of US participation in the Asia-Pacific economic integration, ‘Biden has rediscovered a forgotten feature of geopolitics — that economic engagement is vital for cementing alliances’ — hence the launch of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework or IPEF, a shiny but ultimately hollow substitute for US involvement in the Asian economic integration agenda being led by Asian countries themselves, embodied in instruments like RCEP (and the TPP after its appropriation by Japan and key partners).
Whether more ambition on trade emerges depends, like so much else, on US political dynamics. ‘If Biden makes an early, secret decision not to seek a second term, he will free himself from the shackles of progressive Democrats and Trumpian Republicans’, Hufbauer writes. On the other hand, ‘if Biden harbours hopes of a second term, the next two years will be much like the last — wordplay but little substance in international economic engagement.’
There is speculation about whether Trump himself will run or save himself the potentially humiliating route of contesting a party primary as a former president by anointing a favoured successor, such as Florida Governor Ron De Santis, in the Republican primary.
If successful, this ‘Trump-lite’ option might at least spare the world the idiosyncratically transactional, foreign-policy-as-real-estate-deal approach that Trump brought to international affairs. But his closest political allies are part of a political milieu that sees cultural diversity and openness to migration as a liability — rather than the sources of national strength that they in fact are. And they share a fantasy of American power that paradoxically sees the US’ global leadership role — and its alliance commitments — as somehow too onerous, at the same time as maintaining an anachronistic faith in the US ability to unilaterally bend global politics to its own advantage.
The lesson, loud and clear, is that Asia needs a plan in case Trump, or at least Trumpism, undermines not only the global trading system, but sweeps away the credibility of US security guarantees to systemically important economic powers like Japan and South Korea; as well as the fence-sitters who benefit from the latent hard power that has backed up the vaunted ‘rules-based order’.
Asia has to find a way to confront its collective challenges with the United States both staying on the bench in the game of regional economic integration, but also permanently weakening its commitment to providing security and public goods that it has until now. The good news is that Asia is pushing ahead with its own regional economic integration agenda at an impressive pace.
What is sorely needed for the decades to come is an Asian commitment to building a pluralistic, anti-hegemonic security order — and an institutional architecture to sustain it — that builds off and reinforces the stability and pluralism that emerges from broad prosperity and integrated markets. Such an order exists in Southeast Asia with ASEAN but it needs strengthening and broadening to encompass ASEAN’s large neighbours.
The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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