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A decade has passed since Barack Obama failed to enforce his “red line” against the use of chemical weapons in Syria. But a US president made good on that commitment in the end. Who, upon the election of Donald Trump, thought he would be the one to hit Bashar al-Assad’s air force with cruise missiles on a point of principle?
I ask because governments around the world are trying to anticipate the foreign policies of a second Trump administration. It might be easier to forecast the temperature in London at 3.12pm on April 16 2048. He is, in the end, an egoist, and egoism is an ambiguous force in politics, as liable to pull a state inward (“screw the world”) as to send it violently abroad (“the world must feel our strength”). All predictions of what he will do if elected next year must be laced with doubt. But some things seem probable.
Under Trump, the US will reduce the scope or enforcement of sanctions against Russia. It will also slow the traffic of materiel to Ukraine. This will be justified as putting the US first. It will have the opposite effect. Nothing has done more for America’s global clout since the first Gulf war than its support for Ukraine. The world now knows that it can tie down the third costliest military on Earth for an indefinite period with donations from the Pentagon arsenal. Imagine being a state that hedges between China and the US, and seeing this exhibition of almost insouciant power. In other news, Vietnam upgraded its relations with America this month.
The trouble is that nationalists are the worst readers of the national interest. And so Trump and his fans in Congress will jilt Ukraine. What else? He will step up his past menaces against America’s international treaties. In security, this means Nato and the bilateral guarantees with South Korea and Japan. (Like paper money, these rest on confidence, so even if he spreads doubt about US commitment, instead of withdrawing in full, the damage would be mortal.) In economics, the World Trade Organization is the natural target. A legislative plot of his against it in 2018 came to little. But age, and the constitutional bar on a third term, would free him to act without restraint.
Elsewhere, expect more continuities than ruptures. This is because, on protectionism, on Iran, on the withdrawal from Afghanistan, Joe Biden hardly deviated from Trump in the first place. Even his detachment from Saudi Arabia on ethical grounds has given way to the more transactional approach of his predecessor.
In fact, only one Trump policy will catch the world out. It just happens to be the most important.
Trump is well placed to take some of the sting out of US-China relations. It is true that he made US policy more hostile. But something has got lost in the flow of events since then. His grievance with the People’s Republic was narrowly economic. The subsequent widening of the quarrel to encompass grand strategy (who rules the Asian waves?) and political philosophy (is democracy better than autocracy?) has been the work of others: Mike Pompeo, Biden and a US politico-business elite whose thoughts about the world have changed more in five years than in the previous 50.
Don’t assume, then, that Trump, if he feels respected on trade, is interested in “containing” China. Taiwan is where this point crystallises. Biden has done more than other presidents in the era of strategic ambiguity to suggest that America would directly defend the island. Trump, even this month, is still enigmatic on that question. (And almost moist-eyed about his former counterpart Xi Jinping.)
What animates Washington is not just concern for Taiwan itself, but a dread that, if the US doesn’t intervene, allies everywhere will lose confidence in the American empire. But what if the president regards that empire as a folly? What if he has chafed at even the cost of US garrisons in Asia? For a sense of Trump’s narrowness, his line on Taiwan is that, in mastering semiconductor production, it “took our business away”. Admirers and enemies alike are forever reading grand visions into a man with an almost touchingly banal, dollars-and-cents worldview.
Perhaps, as some whisper, he was radicalised against China by the pandemic. Also, through sheer inattention, he might just fail to grip an executive branch that will contain dedicated China hawks. But the world is prepared for that — for eternal superpower schism. It is a Trump-led detente that might stun us in a second term that is otherwise all too guessable.