Even by the gladiatorial standards of US presidential elections past, the contrast between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on foreign policy presents the American voter with an aberration – a choice between a near-seamless continuity with America’s core values versus their complete rejection as little more than a farrago of weakness and inaction stitched together by lily-livered, out-of-touch elites.
If Trump wins, the Republican presidential contender has made plain, American foreign policy as we currently know it would be turned upside down. To judge by his statements alone, trade deals would be ripped up, longstanding alliances questioned, nuclear non-proliferation called into question, international humanitarian law flouted, and tyrants, petty or less so, lauded and apparently rewarded for their shows of strength where once they would have been shunned or held in watchful abeyance.
Small wonder that Kurt Campbell, former assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs and a chief architect of President Barack Obama’s so-called “Pivot to Asia”, noted on Thursday at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank in New York, that the most salient concern he discovered in recent travels across Asia wasn’t the nuclear provocation of North Korea, nor the growing assertiveness of China, the potential instability of various Southeast Asian locales, or worries about slowing economic growth. Instead, he heard a pan-Asian consensus of anxiety at the spectacle currently unfolding in America.
But let’s say Trump loses. Which, judging by the most recent polling data, he may. What foreign policy damage will he have left in his wake? Will Trump’s supporters simply disperse and vanish? Or has he fired up a new populist movement that will, like the “Tea Party” activists that emerged in 2009, spawn a generation of like-minded politicians who will irredeemably change the balance of power in Congress and ultimately make lasting legislative decisions? Is it possible that the need to take back votes from Trump, particularly from ambiguous-minded “swing voters”, might force a radical shift in Hilary Clinton’s long-time support of, say, the Trans-Pacific Partnership?
In Special Providence, American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World, the political theorist Walter Russell Mead argues that American foreign policy has historically been driven by the interplay of four conflicting schools of thought. He names them after four presidents and their abiding concerns. Thus the Hamiltonian prioritises international commerce. The Jeffersonian focuses domestically, on securing the American democratic system. The Wilsonian is driven by moral principle and the projection of US values abroad. And finally, the Jacksonian taps into a populist strain that puts weight on US military might. Debunking the view that there has been little continuity to American history, just a series of violent vacillations between isolationists and internationalists, hawks and doves, Mead writes that each of these schools of thought acts as a check and balance on the others. Taken together, they’ve ensured the overarching consensus and fundamental stability that has lain behind America’s foreign policy success in a chaotic and contingent world.
At the Council on Foreign Relations on Thursday, Thomas Christensen, who served as George W. Bush’s deputy secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, pointed out that much of the foundational work for what the Obama administration rolled out as its Pivot to Asia actually began under the previous, Republican administration – including the seeding of the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal and certain military initiatives. The difference is that, even as America was working quietly behind the scenes, it had to contend with other political contexts and global realities.
“People ask me,” said Christensen, “can you compare how the Bush administration did in Asia and how the Obama administration is doing in Asia? Usually the motivation behind that question is to say: When the Bush administration left office, the region was much more stable and less tension-ridden than it is today, therefore the Bush administration did a better job. And I reject that, because I think that the China we had to deal with in the Bush administration was a very different China than the one that the Obama administration has had to deal with.”
If Trump loses, President Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy is unlikely to be much affected. Compounding her own deep familiarity with politics and diplomacy, including her four-year tenure as Obama’s first secretary of state, she will have no trouble attracting into her administration a seasoned team of foreign policy experts, doubtless with Democratic leanings but who will be well placed to deal with unforeseen developments abroad (a tsunami, a coup, an economic disaster). For four years, possibly eight, she will present a bulwark against any of the lasting damage of Trump’s campaign.
But if Mead’s thesis holds, there is a sense in which Trump’s rise and eventual defeat can’t entirely be ignored, even as his political moment is swallowed into the shape-shifting fabric of the American system. After all, Trump isn’t the cause of the populist strain he has fanned in US politics – he’s just the most effective embodiment of it, for now. Homo Trumpus is a species of American with many different attributes, fears and aspirations. Though some among them are undeniably attracted to Trump’s outright bigotry, misogyny and statements of petty cruelty, others excuse that as refreshing attacks on “political correctness”.
To many he represents a rejection of an establishment that they feel hasn’t adequately addressed the changing circumstances of their lives. Ironically, Trump, the billionaire hotel magnate and notoriously philandering New York socialite, has tapped into a deeply conservative Jacksonian impulse, including a core of white, working-class men who should find in him little reflection. Meanwhile, Clinton, the self-made daughter of a small-business owner, is painted as the arch-incarnation of the Washington elite.
But if the measure of American foreign policy has been its fundamental resilience and its tendency to stay the course, then with the loss of Trump, people can again, perhaps, sleep easy in Asia. As Kurt Campbell put it at the Council on Foreign Relations, speaking of Obama’s initiatives: “I will say that the hope was not to suggest that this was different than Republicans, that it was a continuity largely, because basically everything that we’ve done in Asia has generally been bipartisan. I don’t know what bipartisan is going to mean anymore.”
A former Asia correspondent for The Washington Post, Delphine Schrank is the author of The Rebel of Rangoon: A Tale of Defiance and Deliverance in Burma