Scholars who claim to know with any certainty how U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s foreign policy will crystalize are engaging in tenuous prophecy. As they and the United States’ international partners strain to determine the contours of his plans, however, there are at least two groups of source material on which they can draw. The first is Trump’s statements on foreign policy during his campaign; the second is the writings of his closest national security advisers.
When it comes to the president-elect’s approach to Asia, these two sets of evidence point in different directions: one toward retrenchment and the other toward unilateralism. Yet these divergent visions have something important in common. Neither calls for a foreign policy centered around the system of alliances, rules, and norms that have underpinned the United States’ leadership of the international order since 1945. Together with the deep uncertainty surrounding Trump’s objectives for Asia and the tools he has suggested he will use to pursue them, the absence of principled and predictable U.S. leadership could lead to a destabilizing shift in the regional balance of power in the near term.
READING THE TEA LEAVES
Foreign policy, particularly as it relates to Asia, played a relatively minor role in Trump’s presidential campaign. When the topic of U.S. policy toward Asia did arise, Trump tended to use the opportunity to underscore the “America first” worldview he adopted from the isolationist Charles Lindberg, railing against trade deals and promising economic retaliation against those who subvert U.S. interests. Indeed, during his candidacy, Trump appeared to see Asian states mostly through an economic lens, often as rule-breakers deserving punishment.
Like Hillary Clinton, Trump opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership during his campaign. But he also assailed free trade deals more broadly, vowing to upend a number of the United States’ international economic ties. Trump promised to label China a
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