Commentary | 25 May 2016

These times call for a serious president, not a childish one like Donald Trump

'Every day, the liberal international order that has existed for 70 years seems less liberal, less international and less orderly.'

This article was first published in the Australian Financial Review.

  • Michael Fullilove

'Every day, the liberal international order that has existed for 70 years seems less liberal, less international and less orderly.'

This article was first published in the Australian Financial Review.

  • Michael Fullilove

Executive Summary

Eight years ago, I was living in Washington, DC, as a remarkable presidential race unfolded around me.

Last week, I was back in the United States. Now, as then, Hillary Clinton was presumed to be heading towards an inevitable victory until a charismatic newcomer to national politics shook up the race and the electoral map.

But that's where the similarity ends.

In 2008, the challenger was The One. In 2016, it's The Donald. Then, the themes of the day were hope and change. Now, the themes are anger and retreat.

Notwithstanding national polls showing a close race, it is unlikely Donald Trump will be elected president in November. Winning 70 million votes in a general election is very different from winning 10 million in a primary.

The new voters Trump attracts will probably be outnumbered by those he repels. Americans will work out that he personifies all of the meanest aspects of their country's character and none of the greatest ones.

But either horse can win a two-horse race, and although Clinton is a sensible and well-qualified presidential candidate – one of the most experienced in American history, in fact – she is not a compelling one. She has not yet managed to finish off the campaign of a 74-year-old socialist who until very recently did not even call himself a Democrat.

Effect on foreign policy

The campaign is already corroding America's prestige and her soft power. But what will the result mean for the world?

A Clinton victory would mean a continuation of the broad lines of the Obama administration's foreign policy, albeit with a harder edge. Unlike his predecessor George Bush, Barack Obama has run a reality-based foreign policy. Given Australia's record of fighting beside the United States, this prudence has largely served our interests.

However, Obama didn't just learn the lessons from the Iraq war; he overlearnt them. Under his leadership, US foreign policy has become overly cool and cautious.

Clinton would correct this tendency. A little more steel would be welcome. Hopefully it would strengthen the deterrent effect of US power.

Her advisers promise a tougher policy in Syria. We may well see a shift in tone and tactics in Asia, a development for which China seems to be preparing itself.

Our region would be a focus of attention for Clinton as president, as it was when she was secretary of state. The US rebalance to Asia is her most important legacy item. She may restore some of the oomph the pivot has lost in recent years.

Unfortunately, Clinton would also be tougher on trade, as demonstrated by her dispiriting opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The Democratic consensus in favour of free trade that existed during her husband's presidency has fallen away. The best hope for the TPP is that Obama is able to push it through Congress in the lame-duck period, allowing Hillary to grudgingly accept it.

A Trump presidency hardly bears thinking about, yet we must.

His foreign-policy opinions are as consistent as the Melbourne weather. But beneath the bluster and contradictions, a few points are clear.

Affinity for strongmen 

Trump is violently allergic to America's alliances. He derides an alliance network that helps Washington to project its influence and, in Asia, to keep a lid on interstate friction. He insists that Japan and South Korea must pay more for the umbrella of protection provided by Washington. Who cares if this leads to Tokyo and Seoul raising their own nuclear umbrellas?

So far Australia has not been called out as a scrounger, but it may happen.

Then there is Trump's instinctive affinity for strongmen and his apparent contempt for democrats. He says nicer things of Vladimir Putin than he does of the European leaders with whom the United States is allied.

To date, Trump has criticised China on trade grounds. But is it not hard to imagine him developing a liking for President Xi Jinping – another big man who expects deference.

It is no wonder, then, that Australians are so anti-Trump. Lowy Institute polling indicates that nearly half of Australians would like Canberra to distance itself from Washington if Trump were elected president. This is a striking result given that support for the US alliance is one of the most consistent results in the history of our polling.

Every day, the liberal international order that has existed for 70 years seems less liberal, less international and less orderly. The United States has inched back from the world and challengers have stepped into it. The West is drooping. The historic project to unite the European continent seems shaky. The Middle East is a bloody mess. There are more refugees, asylum seekers and displaced people than at any time since the end of the Second World War.

These times call for a serious president, not a childish one.