Donald Trump’s Presidency began with a foreign policy decision forged in the furnace of America’s domestic politics. The abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership certainly has had implications for New Zealand. But it would have been unwise at the time, and is even less wise now, to conclude from this single step that all the new Administration’s external policy preferences would be reversals of what we had come to expect from Washington.
Yet there were reasons to wonder if at least some of the established settings would change as Trump arrived at the White House. The President-elect seemed to be angling for a change to Washington’s longstanding one China policy. But that has proven to be little more than a transitory thought. Rex Tillerson’s recent China visit is instructive here. We don’t know how robust things got in private discussions, but the Secretary of State’s language (using formulations we have come to expect from Beijing rather than Washington) cannot have been more welcome to Xi Jinping.
While hosting Mr. Abe at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s muted response to North Korea’s missile testing provocation was light on substance. But it was also short on alarmism. A tougher and riskier approach to Pyongyang’s provocations is indicated in Mr. Tillerson’s recent comments in the region. His view that that diplomacy with North Korea has failed and the implication that military options are even more firmly on the table has already set the cats among the pigeons. But it may one day come to be recognized as part of a pattern of America’s coercive diplomacy where force is threatened but not used.
Of course American foreign policy is about much more than Asia. Candidate Trump also promised that his Administration would obliterate the so-called Islamic State. As President he has adopted a similar declaratory tone. But the new Administration’s operational policy suggests more continuity than revolutionary change including a heavy reliance on special forces missions. Like Obama, Trump has a strong disinterest in having US forces in significant numbers tied up on the ground in Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan.
And Trump’s commitment to additional military expenditure is not necessarily a sign of more expeditions abroad. The proposed build-up (which is not as big as it sounds) seems designed to reassure Trump’s base that he is a supporter of the American military. It is not clear how much that policy, including the “mine is bigger than yours” approach to nuclear weapons, is for export.
A home-brewed foreign policy still carries risks for others. As the United Kingdom has recently experienced, the absurd lengths to which some in the Trump team have gone to explain imagined domestic conspiracies can harm important bilateral relationships. Malcolm Turnbull’s early taste of the Trump era was not very pleasant. Nobody in Asia, including Mr. Abe and Mr. Xi, should assume that the common interests they share with Washington won’t be thrown under a bus by Mr. Trump for domestic political reasons. The fact that New Zealand does not attract much American attention could turn out to be an asset for the time being.
Not everything begins at home and there will be times when the world will impinge on America. The slower Trump is in assembling a full team and getting the machinery of government working, the more likely it is that his Administration will be surprised by an international crisis. There are clear signs, including on the growing famine affecting Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria and Yemen, that the Trump team is closing its eyes and ears. And a new Administration committed to overturning existing domestic policy on climate change and environmental protection can hardly be expected to be active on these issues internationally (at least not in a positive sense).
Meanwhile the trend towards less Presidential oversight of US military deployments may not be comforting for other countries who are expected to put their forces in challenging situations. For New Zealand, that includes Iraq. Murray McCully’s participation in a counter-ISIS meeting being hosted by Mr. Tillerson comes at an important time in the evolution of the Trump foreign policy. But Mr. McCully is leaving office soon and Prime Minister English is not used to focusing on New Zealand’s international relations. A general election is looming, and the main opposition party has lost two of its foreign policy heavyweights in Phil Goff and David Shearer. This means our diplomats and defence officials will have even more work to do to make sure that Wellington stays connected to what is going on within the United States, what this means for US foreign policy, and what it means for New Zealand’s interests and values.
Robert Ayson is Professor of Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington. He can be contacted at: robert@email@example.com
The Centre for Strategic Studies and the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre are co-hosting a one-day symposium on 'Trump, China and the Region: where to from here?' in Wellington on 4 May. For more information on the list of international and New Zealand speakers, and how to register, click here.
Photo Credit: White House, used under Creative Commons