Politics in western democratic politics is a wild ride these days. There’s a big reason for this. The Reagan-Thatcher economic revolution 35 years ago, anchored in de-regulation, privatisation, free markets at home, free trade and investment abroad, “trickle-down” for the working and middle classes, and the globalisation of everything, has now come to a shuddering halt.
There is now a majority of people who want it all to stop. While there may be a lot in all this for the captains of finance, they see little in it for them. Their jobs are threatened. They are struggling to stay afloat. They fear for their kids. Their dignity, self-respect and identity are under threat. They believe their country cares more for foreigners than it does for them. They are sick of being told globalisation is in their best interests. They despise the fact that London, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, the “global” cities, are going gangbusters, while the rest of the world is not. Brexit was the entree. The Presidential elections the main course. And that’s before robotics cuts a fresh swathe through traditional jobs, once thought to be permanently secure.
The impact is profound. This is the biggest departure in US political and economic orthodoxy since WW11. And potentially the biggest single change in US foreign and security policy since the end of the Cold War. That spells uncertainty. Despite having lived in America the last three years, I didn’t pick these elections. Therese did. As she did Brexit. Partly because she knows a lot about what’s going on in labor markets. The reaction to escalating inequality is the movement we now see unfolding across America and Europe.
There’s little point in the left, or the “respectable” right, complaining about President Trump. It is what it is. The practical challenge is to understand where Trump is likely to steer the American ship of state, and how the international community now engages his administration. Many will spend hours analysing each of his policy statements during the campaign. These folks should go to the beach instead. Trump does not believe he is bound by anything he said in the campaign. He sees himself as having complete flexibility. Much better to understand the nature of the man and the movement he represents.
Trump in US political and corporate life is a loner. He is despised by the establishments in both parties for decades. Leading corporates, particularly Wall Street, have always rejected him as one of their own. He demands respect and has received little. He is a maverick who enjoys being his own man, and defying the sneers of those around him. He is not the sort of guy who will be hamstrung by convention, or by the wise counsel of his seniors, as he approaches the demands of high office.
Trumpism the movement is characterised by three overwhelming features: nationalism, bordering on xenophobia; protectionism; and isolationism. These are not unique in American history. It is very much the story of pre-war America, in a movement called “America First.” He describes an America tired of putting its own interests last, and the rest of the world’s first. He sees an America over-extending itself in regions where its real interests are marginal. And he doesn’t believe America has any business imposing its standards on others.
Trump’s core priorities will be domestic and economic. He believes in lower tax. But he is a big believer in government’s role in rebuilding the country’s decrepit infrastructure. Trump is a “capital P” protectionist where the free trade agreement with Canada and Mexico is the root of all evil. He will abandon the TPP trade agreement with eleven Asian countries, including Japan and Australia. This will alienate Prime Minister Abe who has gone out on a limb in protectionist Japan by negotiating the deal with President Obama. A similar agreement with Europe won’t get to first base. He sees unfair trading relationships, especially with China, as a “huge” one-way street which has hollowed out American industry, jobs and cities. A real danger is if he takes his protectionist instincts to their conclusion, it could well cripple global growth altogether.
In Trump’s broader world view, he is committed to rebuilding the American military. He has directly attacked freeloading allies who do not pull their own weight in military expenditure. He has an entirely new approach to Russia with whom he wants to normalise relations, something Putin has welcomed, but with unknown results for Syria, Ukraine and nuclear negotiations.
In Asia, some argue China is delighted by Trump’s election. I don’t agree. China craves stability and predictability in great power relations. With Trump they see great uncertainty. China is deeply focussed on Trump’s stated preparedness to impose across the board 45% tariff increases in retaliation against Chinese protectionist behaviour. Trump states explicitly this is the only real leverage America has on a China struggling to sustain its growth rates. Trump also sees leveraging China as the solution to America’s number one national security challenge: the North Korean nuclear program. Trump will also be more lenient on Duterte in the Philippines.
These factors will create some strategic uncertainty globally. They may cause various international actors to test the new administration. Or cause some to hedge against any emerging US isolationism by seeking strategic accommodations elsewhere. US action on climate change will be as active as Australia under Abbott and Turnbull. Nil. And we don’t know how his other campaign proposals will pan out – the Great Wall of Mexico, the ban on Muslim immigration, the expulsion 12 million illegal residents, his new plan to defeat ISIS and militant Islamism around the world. I suspect we will see the pragmatic reinterpretation of many, although not all.
Australia doesn’t really figure in Trump’s world-view. This is good. We are not seen as a problem to be solved. This may just give us a chance to be a quiet, moderating influence as an ally on policy challenges that really matter. Ambassador Joe Hockey to his credit went to see leading members of Team Trump some time ago, when most other embassies were giving them the cold shoulder. And the only smart thing Turnbull has done since becoming PM was not joining the international chorus line of public attacks by government leaders on Trump pre-election. Maybe Turnbull learnt from Howard’s stupidity when he attacked Obama before the 2008 election, saying an Obama win would be a victory for Al Qaeda. Abbott was just as uncharitable about Obama. The Obama administration never forgot.
Memo to Malcolm: which by definition he will resent: write Trump a personal letter now, by hand, outlining Australia’s and America’s shared interests, and where private dialogue would be welcome. I did this with President-elect Obama in late 2008. Being US President is one of the loneliest jobs in the world. The Donald just might be in search of friends from among his new-found peers. And this might be helpful before too many of his pre-election musings find their way into unchangeable policy.