Editors’ picks for 2018: ‘Trump administration: sick of winning’
28 Dec 2018|

Originally published 26 June 2018.

Fifteen months ago, I wrote an ASPI Strategist article setting out four scenarios for the future of the Trump administration based on how Trump might handle two driving factors. The first factor was whether the administration would stabilise into something more like a mainstream American government or would remain true to its ‘drain the swamp’ disruptive rhetoric. The second was how the administration would behave internationally. Would it engage friends and allies as all post-war US governments have, or would a more disengaged America change the global landscape?

The intersection of these two core strategic choices produces four scenarios:

  • A stable and engaged America, which I called the ‘tougher status quo’, that expects more of its allies and presses its competitors for concessions.
  • An unstable and engaged US becomes an ‘unfocused ally’, where policy is hard to shape and mostly reactive (and where the administration settled in its first year).
  • A stable and isolated ‘off the beat’ America stops being the world’s policeman. Allies get lower priority and competitors have more space to prosecute their interests.
  • An unstable and isolated US produces a ‘new world disorder’, where Trump struggles to get control of the levers of power in Washington and international relationships drift.

How do the scenarios shape up after 15 months? Looking back, I got the engagement dimension slightly wrong. American disengagement from world affairs wasn’t really in prospect. The issue was more about the nature of American engagement. Updating the scenarios to June 2018, I have changed that strategic driver to contrast an ‘America First’ approach with the more typical post-war norm of an ‘engaged America’ providing global leadership based on liberal international values. Trump expressed the difference in his December 2017 National Security Strategy. America First means that: ‘We are prioritizing the interests of our citizens and protecting our sovereign rights as a nation.’ Any similarity to the last 70 years of ‘engaged America’ is purely coincidental.

At the start of Trump’s term, the most hopeful scenario from an allied perspective was the ‘tougher status quo’ where the ‘adults’ in Trump’s cabinet would normalise the administration—although, to be sure, with higher expectations of friends and allies. It hasn’t worked out that way. Trump has galloped purposefully into the ‘off the beat’ scenario, championing an America First approach.

The administration has also stabilised in the sense that we’re now getting the consistently unvarnished Trump, no longer moderated by the adults. Now the president is firmly directing his team to focus on implementing his gut-instincts approach, sacking those who think otherwise, and explaining away the daily inconsistencies that arise. The chaos is deliberate, not just the product of randomness. A stabilised Trump administration is worse than a destabilised one, because it means we’ll get the more purposeful pursuit of the Trumpian agenda. This agenda seems to be media management to generate a sense of action every day—driven by a narrowly conceived view of American interests based on allies as costs, unilateralism without friends, and deals without details with ‘tough’ adversaries he respects.

Perhaps this wasn’t that hard to predict after all, because Trump has done much of what he promised to do: not signing the trans-Pacific pact, leaving the Paris agreement on climate, abandoning the nuclear deal with Iran, renegotiating ‘unfair’ trade deals, and even continuing with plans for the ‘great, great wall on our southern border’. But no one could have reasonably anticipated Trump’s awkward discomfort with the European allies; his casual dissing of Canadian military service as a tactic to promote tariffs (‘And you know, they’re trying to act like, “Well, we fought with you in the war”’); his admiration of authoritarian bullies; his venomous hatred of American media; and the vicious way he turns on friends who stop being useful to him.

The Trump–Kim summit highlights five key traits of an America operating in the ‘off the beat’ scenario. First, Trump’s sole focus is ‘the base’—those who voted for him—when he makes public comments. So, Trump tells the base that cancelling ‘war games’ between the US and South Korea was to save money: ‘[T]he war games are very expensive. We pay for a big majority of them. We fly in bombers from Guam … I know a lot about airplanes; it’s very expensive. And I didn’t like it.’ It doesn’t matter to Trump that this type of language infuriates New York Times writers. In fact, the sight of frothing liberals reassures the base that Trump is doing the right thing.

Second, allies are dispensable. Trump’s outrageous performance at the G7 in Canada and his failure to discuss the exercise cancellations with Japan and South Korea show that even the closest ally can be thrown under a bus if it suits the president’s daily political agenda.

Third, inconsistency is the new consistency. Trump is not bothered that his comments aren’t consistent from one day to the next, blaming the ‘fake news’ for inaccurate reporting. The expectation of accuracy confuses and slows down his opponents. Trump appreciates that dominating the media cycle is what matters and the challenge is to keep moving so everyone else is reacting to his statements.

Fourth, Trump’s leadership model is about breaking rules. This jars America’s checks-and-balances political system but it explains Trump’s admiration for dictators who make their own rules. Thus, Trump thinks Kim is ‘very talented’ because he was able to ‘take over’ North Korea ‘and run it tough’. Trump is running America like his television program The Apprentice, with deal-making and gut instinct rather than coalition building and planning followed by implementation (that boring stuff, that gets things done).

Fifth, it’s all about the Donald. As Trump asked a Time magazine reporter in Singapore: ‘Hi, Brian. Am I on the cover again this week? Boy, have I—so many covers.’ He presented a video to Kim Jong-un—‘Destiny Pictures presents a story of opportunity. A new story. A new beginning. Out of peace. Two men, two leaders, one destiny.’ We are all bit players in Trump’s personal movie: ‘Global Security presents Trump: The presidency, a story of risk-taking, chutzpah and unsinkable ego.’

An America off the beat is a bad outcome for the world. It’s a scenario where China has more scope to consolidate global power and influence, masking to some extent the Communist Party’s intrinsic Leninist nastiness. It’s a world in which America’s traditional allies—let’s call them the axis of decency—lack the leadership instinct and financial capacity to fill the global policing void left by the United States. It’s possible that America will self-right, but not for two or maybe even six years. That’s a long time for the international order to drift while being mauled by an increasingly confident cabal of authoritarian thugs.

What does Australia do? Time to pull on the big-boy pants and start talking and acting like we are the masters of our own strategic destiny. That will take more money and political decisiveness than we have seen in a long, long time. Our own domestic red clown brigade argues that bowing down to our new imperial overlords in Beijing is the solution, but that’s unlikely to wash with the vast bulk of the Australian population who don’t have a permanent hold on seat 1A on Qantas Flight 1.

Malcolm Turnbull said in Singapore last year, ‘[I]n this brave new world we cannot rely on great powers to safeguard our interests. We have to take responsibility for our own security and prosperity’. He’s right of course, but we are just at the beginning of understanding how costly and difficult this lonely path will turn out to be.