Commentary | 10 November 2016

The risks and ramifications of Trump's impulsive adventurism

'The prospect of a game of nuclear chicken between two cocksure hustlers like Kim Jong-un and Trump is deeply unsettling; more so if it comes at the front end of Trump’s learning curve as commander-in-chief'

Originally published in the Guardian Australia. Photo: Flickr/US Navy

'The prospect of a game of nuclear chicken between two cocksure hustlers like Kim Jong-un and Trump is deeply unsettling; more so if it comes at the front end of Trump’s learning curve as commander-in-chief'

Originally published in the Guardian Australia. Photo: Flickr/US Navy

Now that Donald Trump’s nativist insurgency has captured its capital, the rest of the world is anxious to know how that vision will be visited upon them, as Trump seeks to define his boilerplate “America-first” slogan overseas.

In the Asia-Pacific, an immediate fear among longstanding US treaty allies, such as Japan and South Korea, is that Trump will press for greater financial contributions to host military forces in their countries – no matter that it costs the US less to deploy its military forces forward in Asia than to host them at home. One of Trump’s few coherent foreign policy beliefs is that free-riding allies are exploiting America, even to the point of advocating for their independent nuclear armament in Asia. Though his antipathy towards Japan appears strongest, South Korea is more likely to cross the nuclear threshold if Trump retracts the US commitment to extended nuclear deterrence in the region.

Trump has not pointed his finger at Australia as a security free-rider, despite the fact that Canberra commits a smaller percentage of national wealth to defence than Seoul, and drove a harder bargain than Tokyo on the costs of hosting US Marines. Indeed, if the kiss that Rudy Giuliani gave Joe Hockey is anything to go by, Trump’s advisers love Australia.

Yet if his administration is serious about shifting more of the regional security burden on to allies, then Canberra should brace for requests to spend more, do more, and perhaps to host more US forces in future. If Trump throttles back on US defence commitments in Asia, or if Canberra opts to distance itself from the US under new leadership, the implications are more profound.

Australia would need to commit significantly greater sums to its defence. This implication may be lost on critics of the alliance who privately welcome Trump’s election as the trigger for a more independent Australian foreign policy. There is a potential upside to this contingent Trump effect, however, if it incentivises US allies and partners to cooperate more closely. The cross-bracing trend among countries including India, Japan, Australia and Singapore is already in evidence, and may now gather steam.

Trump’s Reaganesque commitment to increase the size of the US navy to 350 ships (though Reagan targeted a 600-ship fleet), suggests that an isolationist military pullback in the Pacific is not in the offing. But Trump’s predisposition to deal making could prompt China to seek an accommodation about Taiwan, and in the South and East China seas. It is unclear how committed he will be to the maritime defence of Asian allies that he sees as ingrates. The Duterte-Trump dynamic will be one to watch.

But a rupture of the US-Australia alliance is not in prospect. This year’s Lowy Institute Poll suggests Australian public support for Anzus is headed for a cold shower under Trump as 45% of respondents said Australia should distance itself from the US if he was elected. But the official ties that bind run deep, including two-way flow of intelligence. If Republican Asian security experts remain true to their pledge not to serve under a Trump administration, then Australia’s importance as a source of knowledge and advice on the region will count for more, leaving aside whether Trump will have full access to his own government’s intelligence.

North Korea is certain to pose a major security challenge, probably early on in Trump’s presidency, as it consolidates its nuclear and missile arsenal – testing out Trump’s willingness to “deal”. How China reacts to any North Korean crisis early on in Trump’s presidency could set the tone for US-China security relations. During the campaign Trump said: “China should solve that problem for us.” He is likely to be as disappointed in that expectation as his predecessors.

The prospect of a game of nuclear chicken ensuing between two cocksure hustlers like Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump is deeply unsettling; more so if it comes at the front end of Trump’s learning curve as commander-in-chief. But unless his bluff is obviously called, Trump is unlikely to spoil for international confrontation at the outset of his presidency, if at all.

Although he will have a Republican-controlled Congress to smooth his policy path, constitutional and other checks are likely to constrain him from impulsive adventurism. Domestic governance will occupy his time in other ways. While Trump is more insurgent than statesman, his acceptance speech points hopefully to some moderating influence from incumbency. Who advises him will be critical.

The greater risk of adventurism lies further down the track of his presidency, once frustration mounts at his failure to deliver in detail on vacuous campaign promises. Foreign adversaries will also overcome their initial fears of challenging him, although North Korea is uniquely impatient in that regard. Trump’s admiration for Vladimir Putin’s Russia is the strangest and most consequential foreign policy risk at the outset of his presidency. But if the US neglects Asia as a result, the strategic consequences will be longer lasting and more concrete.

The more invidious challenge posed by a Trump presidency is to the bedrock belief that alliances with the US are bound by shared values as well as based on common interests. US leadership, on matters ranging from human rights to free trade, must now be in question, based on Trump’s publicly flaunted illiberalism and narrow definition of the national interest. Asia’s “rules-based order” could still endure with US support under Trump, but the concept of a “liberal international order” appears much less certain.

When the US does speak up on values, its moral authority will be challenged by autocrats more likely to see Trump as an authoritarian paragon. Trump’s endorsement by Cambodia’s pariah prime minister, Hun Sen, gave an early taste of the likely demagogic chicanery to follow.

Much as he may be admired in some quarters, for China, Russia and anti-democrats throughout the region Trump’s election serves up a pastiche propaganda win of epic proportions. Most corrosive of all, the outcome of the US election poses a fundamental challenge to the attraction of the democratic model itself.