After the shock: recalibrating for President Trump

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Elsina Wainwright

While Trump has proven it possible to win an election being resolutely off piste and with a small group of advisers, it’s harder to govern that way: many more people need to be drawn in to craft an agenda and run the government.

It was hard to overstate the shock in Washington and here in New York the day after the US election. But now it’s time for sober analysis of Trump’s possible foreign and defence policy, and it’s difficult to know where to begin. While Trump has made statements anathema to the foreign and defence policy establishment, he has offered little in the way of detailed policy. He is also known to have said privately—and his advisers have assured many—that his ideas are more ‘guideposts’ than blueprints.

So it’s unclear what his foreign and defence policy will look like. Given his business background, many issues may well be negotiable, as we are already seeing on healthcare reform. Trump comes from the deal-making world of putting forth far-reaching ambit claims as an opening position, then moving closer to the middle. This trait could account for some of his more radical campaign pronouncements, such as some of his immigration proposals. He could also do this as President, which would be a profound departure from the precisely-worded positions of traditional foreign policy. A compounding variable is the importance of face to this President-elect. The world will need to recalibrate how to conduct affairs of state with the US.

Still, some of Trump’s ideas are more baked in than others, including on trade and alliances. He’s long held a transactional view of alliances and believed the US pays too much for allies’ security—a view that resonated with his supporters (and even President Obama had complained about freeriding). Allies will almost certainly be expected to contribute more to their own and regional security. President Trump will likely have a narrower conception of America’s national interest than his predecessors.

While Trump has proven it possible to win an election being resolutely off piste and with a small group of advisers, it’s harder to govern that way: many more people need to be drawn in to craft an agenda and run the government. The fact his candidacy was so light on detail means his appointments are even more consequential than usual. But many Republican foreign policy experts disavowed Trump in open letters earlier this year. There is, for instance, a lack of senior Asia hands among the current Trump cohort who could give the region a steady policy focus without distraction from domestic, Middle Eastern and European imperatives.

A few may now step forward to serve, often out of a desire to keep the country on an even keel. But with a hastily-assembled team fleshing out detail on the fly and choosing between often contradictory positions, the world should prepare for policy lurches rather than steady policy roll out.

There are some promising initial signs, including reassuring calls to Tokyo, Seoul, Canberra and London, and President Obama’s description of the President elect’s interest in sustaining ‘core strategic relationships’, including a commitment to NATO. A number of Republicans rallying around Trump will stress the enduring benefits of alliances in today’s complex security environment: how they amplify US power projection, deter conflict and restrain allies from destabilizing postures. Some will also make the economic case for global engagement to this businessman-President elect: that it is cost effective for the US to maintain strong alliances and a forward presence, rather than reinsert into theatres and rebuild relationships in a crisis.

But US allies are already reassessing their security postures. This scrutiny has laid bare the fact that some US security guarantees were becoming less structurally credible than during the Cold War, and credibility has strained further with Trump’s questioning of US alliance obligations. Wholesale weakening of America’s alliance system rebounds on all allies, because it undercuts stability, as other allies’ postures change and rivals are emboldened.

Each alliance will have its own trajectory in the face of a Trump Presidency, depending on whether Trump’s view of alliances evolves in office and his perception of each ally’s reliability, geostrategic importance and level of burden-sharing. It will also depend on the personal relationships he and his senior team forge: the fraying US–Philippine relationship under Duterte demonstrates the impact individuals can have on alliances.

At this stage, Australia seems relatively well-positioned with the incoming Administration. Trump didn’t question ANZUS during the campaign, and his team seems seem well-disposed towards Australia (though Trump has little business experience of Australia). Prime Minister Turnbull and the President-elect appear to have had a constructive businessman-to-businessman conversation, and discussed the importance of America’s ongoing engagement to Asia–Pacific stability.

But it’s ever more important for Australia to view ANZUS as a tool to further the national interest, not as an end in itself. Regional military modernisation and the shifting strategic environment mean Australia still needs the US: without America’s strategic protection and access to US intelligence and defence platforms and systems, Australia would need to spend a great deal more on defence. Canberra must ensure ANZUS serves Australia’s interests, including helping to maintain regional stability. That requires counseling Washington on remaining constructively engaged in the Asia–Pacific and finding pathways for China into the regional order.

It’s also vital for Australia to enmesh ANZUS more squarely within the burgeoning web of Asian linkages by strengthening relationships with other Asian nations, including Indonesia, Japan, South Korea and India.

Donald Trump’s election has ushered in an unstable period, as the world’s hitherto linchpin becomes less predictable and states recalibrate accordingly. It’s going to take a while for the shock to wear off.

The article was originally published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) on November 16, 2016

Elsina Wainwright is a non-resident senior fellow at Sydney University’s US Studies Centre and a visiting fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation | Twitter: @ElsinaWainwrigh