Prof Michael E. Brown, Professor of International Affairs and Political Science at the Elliot School of International Affairs, the George Washington University, and Dr Bates Gill, Professor of Asia-Pacific Security Studies at Macquarie University, took stock of US foreign policy under the Donald Trump administration at an RSIS Distinguished Public Dialogue held on 10 January 2019.
Prof Brown highlighted three “Ts” that characterise the present Trump administration. The first concerns the Trump administration’s inclination for “tearing things up”, including the Iran nuclear deal and the US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. The second relates to Trump’s record-setting staff “turnover” rate, which is higher than that during the past six presidents at the same point of their administrations. The third concerns President Trump’s “truthfulness”, or the apparent lack of it.
Prof Brown referred to a survey done by the non-partisan Pew Research Center that found only 27% of over 20,000 respondents polled expressed confidence in President Trump to “do the right thing regarding world affairs”. Notably, Mr Trump inspired less confidence than authoritarian leaders Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, polling 34% and 30% respectively.
Prof Brown commented that there are three consistencies in Washington right now. First, President Trump’s undying conviction in his own personal beliefs that are impervious to logic and world events. Second, the current administration’s obsession with tariffs. Third, Trump’s belief that US alliances are not good or advantageous for the United States. Prof Brown expected US foreign policy in the next two years to continue to be marked by chaos and catastrophes.
Dr Gill shared Prof Brown’s concerns about the Trump administration, pointing to its lack of policy consistencies and lack of strategic coherence. Touching on US alliances and relationships in the Asia-Pacific region, he noted that the United States had made no significant improvements with any of its key partners in the region thus far.
On US relations with China in the past two years, Dr Gill pointed out these had been incoherent and mismanaged, driven by over-the-top-rhetoric and economic strong-arming that had yielded insignificant economic improvements at great strategic cost. Dr Gill said that the US–Japan alliance appeared to be the only bilateral relationship that retained some spark in the region. On the whole, the United States under Trump had failed to present and prove itself as a reliable and committed strategic partner in the region, Dr Gill commented.
During the question and answer session moderated by RSIS Executive Deputy Chairman Amb Ong Keng Yong, several questions were raised on the ongoing US–China trade tensions and Trump’s record on China. The two speakers pointed out that President Trump consistently believed that the US–China relationship was imbalanced in favour of Beijing and that Washington must punish China economically. Both speakers agreed that there was very little to be optimistic about for the remaining term of the Trump administration; the only hope shared was for the situations to not escalate to a level of irreparable damage.