The foreign policy orientation of United States President-elect Donald Trump is virtually a blank page. Among many speculations over his future diplomatic conduct, however, it is possible to single out a couple of historical geopolitical trends that could at least help delineate the boundaries in which the Asian-Pacific strategy of the new American administration will arguably be carried out.
Both history and the constraints of geopolitics do not stand with “The Donald” if he really aims to reduce the US footprint in East Asia.
No deliberate demotion
Despite his bombastic approach to catch the headlines, Trump cannot “make America great again” by giving up on its superpower status. A sharp disengagement in the Western Pacific would be tantamount to a plain abdication in the hierarchy of global politics.
In the world’s history, no superpower (or transcontinental power) has ever abdicated to its direct challenger, while still at the top, besides. The ancient Persian Empire was defeated by the Greeks of Alexander the Great; the Soviet Union came to the same bad end at the hand of Washington; the Roman Empire collapsed due to its internal contradictions, which made it unable to face multiple external threats, quite like the Chinese Empire in the mid-1800s.
The one superpower that sort of deliberately forfeited its role in global affairs was Britain, but it did that to the advantage of its geopolitical heir — the United States — in a process that lasted about 50 years (from the Spanish-American War in 1898 to the end of World War II in 1945) and in the absence of any military confrontation.
Who abandons whom?
In a geopolitical competition — and China and the US have one underway, like it or not — there is nothing more complicated than completing a strategic disengagement.
Outgoing US President Barack Obama has been trying to shift the country’s military focal point from the Middle East and Europe to East Asia, but the move has proved to be a chimera. Obama has been often blamed for pursuing a dangerous withdrawal from the Greater Middle East, as in an internal memo that 51 State Department diplomats critical of his policy in Syria signed last June.
Some went as far as to label the US president as an “isolationist with drones and special-operations forces,” citing Stanford University scholar Josef Joffe. Yet, Obama is the same president that helped Britain and France topple Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Gaddafi’s fall has thrown Libya and neighboring countries into chaos; an unintended consequence of a decision that gained “isolationist-turned-interventionist” Obama widespread criticism.
Dependence on oil procurement from the Persian Gulf is no longer a strategic liability for Washington, and this alone would justify a decreased engagement in the region. The problem is that the US cannot abandon its allies there, because that would ultimately weaken the diplomatic system underpinning its superpower status.
As for Europe, during his first mandate, Obama tried to “reset” relations with Russia after the tensions between his predecessor George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin over the former’s unilateral war on terror that brought America’s military up to the post-Soviet space in Central Asia. Obama’s reset with Moscow should have been the precondition to ease the US military presence in Europe and release resources for the Pacific Rim, but the breakout of the Ukrainian conflict in 2014 frustrated the American president’s plans.
Post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have showed that it is far simpler for a great power to deploy troops in a combat zone than pulling them back. The same could happen in Asia-Pacific, where current US allies and partners know well that Washington is the only possible balancer to China in the region, and where Americans have channeled a great deal of military, diplomatic and commercial capital in the past years.
Thus, if Obama failed in disentangling America from Europe and the Middle East to pivot/rebalance to East Asia, now it is unlikely that Trump would preside over a US strategic retrenchment in East Asia to shift focus on domestic challenges.
Isolationists do not kneel down at all
Trump has often been branded as an isolationist. But in the current balance of power, traditional US isolationism would shun any action pushing America out of Asia-Pacific, as it will mean more regional instability and, in turn, a threat to Washington’s national interest.
Isolationist America (or Jacksonian America, in the words of US historian Walter Russell Mead) does not dismiss interventionism a priori, it actually calls on the government to use military and diplomatic assets uniquely in the country’s interest, so as to prop up the prosperity of the American people; what US isolationists truly reject is humanitarian, international law-based and multilateral adventurism. This segment of American electorate (in large part white blue-collars and rural communities) is Trump’s largest constituency and will have its voice in shaping the new administration’s foreign policies.
In this scenario, Trump will have to be content at most with maintaining the status quo in Asia-Pacific, like G.W. Bush did during his tenure. After the terrorist attack on America in 2001, with the US military overstretched in Afghanistan and Iraq, Bush Jr. managed to preserve Washington’s clout in East Asia without coming into collision with China over North Korea and Taiwan (which at the time, like now, was run by a pro-independence president).
The current status quo in the region is quite different from the Bush era’s — China is in fact far stronger in military terms and potential flash points have multiplied. But if Trump thinks of preserving (or bringing back to the top) the American greatness and unique global role, trying to minimize the relative costs at once, he will have to find a Bush-style modus vivendi with the Chinese giant.