CANBERRA – Donald Trump’s supporters have bought his promise to “Make America Great Again.” The decisive factor in his victory was the defection of Democratic working class voters to the Republicans. The mass protests rejecting his victory suggest the progressives have become the depressives.
Hillary Clinton made strategic and operational errors in her campaign. In a year of major political insurgencies, the Democratic Party played dirty to impose the most insider of all candidates who is the very embodiment of the unholy nexus between the political and financial elites that repel increasing numbers of voters. She did not go to Wisconsin after being nominated, taking it for granted as it had been a solid Democratic state since the 1980s. She lost it. Too many voters had had enough of the Clinton dynasty and rebelled at its sense of entitlement. Even more importantly, Clinton could not shake off deeply held perceptions of untrustworthiness.
The larger cause of Clinton’s defeat are broad structural forces sweeping the Western world. Foul of mouth, lewd of act and light on job-relevant resume notwithstanding, the billionaire Trump successfully sold himself as the people’s champion against a corrupt political establishment in hock to big money. He channeled the frustrations of the forgotten heartland of hollowed-out Middle America with a promise to stick it to the snobs (elites) and scolds (political correctness warriors). The progressivism of the privileged loses its appeal in the rust belts of America. Their core demands are a decent job, affordable education, accessible health care and a modest income on retirement.
Worried about shrinking wages and disappearing jobs, they rallied to Trump’s call to end free trade agreements that made the wealthy even richer but shipped jobs overseas. Unable to cope with rising costs while wages are stagnant, they placed the urgency of the climate change challenge below their desire to stop wage-depressing illegal immigrants. Fearful of terror attacks, Trump’s call to suspend Muslim migration until they figured out what was happening resonated. Revolted by the careerist politicians’ self-serving chumminess with big money, they voted to drain the Washington swamp.
Trump will enter office as the most unconventional president in U.S. history, loathed by half the country, feared by the ethnic and religious groups he has insulted and threatened, repellent to large numbers of women for treating them as sex objects, and estranged from much his own party hierarchy.
Trump has promised to erase President Barack Obama’s legacy and cleanse the institutionalized political, bureaucratic and financial structures of systemic corruption. An early call for Trump will be the choice of the next Supreme Court justice. On foreign policy, he has identified four critical priorities to better reflect a more aggressive defense of U.S. interests, of which three have direct consequences for Asia-Pacific: trade, alliances and climate change. The fourth is immigration. A failure to build a wall with Mexico would badly dent his credibility.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership is dead in the water and other protectionist barriers will impact on several Asian countries. A possible China-U.S. trade war would have global repercussions. The retreat from climate change commitments could doom the Earth. But accepting Russia as a major power with legitimate interests in Eastern Europe could lower geopolitical tensions, and leaving it to sort out the Syrian mess could end one of the bloodiest conflicts of recent times.
The potential promise and perils are evident in Trump’s statements on nuclear matters. He queried the point of having nuclear weapons if they could not be used in the conflicts of current concern to the U.S. He suggested that as part of allies taking over responsibility for their own defense instead of relying on the U.S., Japan and South Korea could get nuclear weapons. He was widely pilloried and ridiculed for his apparent ignorance and irresponsibility. It formed part of Clinton’s case for questioning his fitness to be president.
Yet in both cases Trump was simply noting that the nuclear emperor is naked. One big reason nuclear weapons have not been used since 1945 is they are indeed essentially useless. The global moral opprobrium of their use against non-nuclear states would vastly exceed any geopolitical or commercial gains. Against nuclear-armed rivals, they would amount to executing a mutual suicide pact. Militarily unusable, their limited political utility lies in deterrence of nuclear attack by the other side. But there is no evidence whatsoever that any country has considered an attack on another but was deterred by the fear of nuclear retaliation.
Alternatively, if the bomb is useful, why not encourage Seoul and Tokyo to go nuclear? The answer, of course, is that the limited utility of nuclear weapons is vastly outweighed by the threat posed to all life on Earth by the nine countries that have them already. The risks will multiply exponentially with each new nuclear-armed state.
But in a third case Trump betrays his boast as the man who wrote the book on the art of the deal. He has promised to overturn the Iran agreement. That was the result of a mix of coercion and inducements during a decade of international negotiations involving several U.S. allies, China and Russia. Over that period Iran’s nuclear capability, facilities and materials steadily increased.
Following the deal most of Iran’s material capabilities have been shrunk, some capped, and the timeline of any future breakout greatly lengthened. Both sides gained more than they conceded and all sides have more to lose than gain if the deal unravels. With unilateral abrogation, Trump would not be able to reassemble the international sanctions coalition, and Iran would eject IAEA inspectors and could resume its nuclear program at a faster pace.
As the first president without political or military leadership experience, Trump enters office with a certain degree of innocence and naivety. The risk is he will be seduced by the siren song of the Washington playbook of militarized responses to foreign policy crises. But there are grounds for cautious optimism.
Trump’s shrewdness and business experience indicate a potential to grow into the office. The choice of good advisers will be crucial. Given Trump’s inchoate policy preferences, advisers will have an exceptionally clean slate on which to influence the president. There are institutional checks on the discretionary latitude in the exercise of executive power. And there is a role for civil society and the media to highlight flaws, errors and inconsistencies and provide constructive alternatives.
If American voters were truly racist, they would not twice have elected Barack Hussein Obama. If most are misogynist, how come Clinton won more votes? Setting aside the schadenfreude at the bewilderment of the commentariat, why should the opinions of those who cannot understand their own country have any credibility in analyzing foreign countries?
Ramesh Thakur is director of the Center for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.
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