Published daily by the Lowy Institute

A Trump legacy?

Trump or Biden, it’s clear there are far bigger foreign policy contests still to be settled.

President Donald Trump in Goodyear, Arizona, 28 October 2020 (The White House/Flickr)
President Donald Trump in Goodyear, Arizona, 28 October 2020 (The White House/Flickr)

The “who won” question isn’t quite resolved. Bleary-eyed pundits fossicking over every county result are making about as much sense – and as much noise — as a flock of seagulls scrabbling for chips on the beach. Joe Biden might just have the numbers. But Donald Trump hasn’t been blown away.

If Biden does manage to win enough Electoral College votes, and hold Trump’s legal threats at bay, there will be plenty more pickings in the weeks ahead for assessments of future US foreign policy. And “policy” might well again be a word in vogue, rather than Trump’s often reactive impulses.

The headline “Putting America First” seems to clash with this message of “mutual interests and values”.

But the Trump years have witnessed remarkable change, perhaps most consequentially for Australia in relation to China. Perhaps with a legacy in mind, it was notable, albeit completely overshadowed by last frantic rallies ahead of election day, that on Monday 2 November Trump released what was described as a “book” collecting his administration’s pronouncements on China.

Indeed, this book was billed as something much more – a modern equivalent to the famous “Long Telegram” penned by George Kennan in the 1940s, which became the foundation for the US containment strategy against the Soviet Union. To quote the White House statement on about the release:

This book is different from the “Long Telegram” in two important respects. First, unlike Kennan’s case, written by an envoy at post, this book contains the words and policies of the President and his most senior officials. Second, given China’s population size, economic prowess, and historic global ambitions, the People’s Republic of China is a more capable competitor than the Soviet Union at its height.

Given Trump has been never been known for setting out grand visions in policy speeches, it’s striking here he’s sought to adopt those of his officials. The book starts with Mike Pence’s 2018 speech to the Hudson Institute, which caused such a stir ahead of the Port Moresby APEC meeting, and includes others by Deputy National Security Adviser Matthew Pottinger and FBI Director Christopher Wray. Of course, there are also speeches by Trump himself, but given there has often been speculation about the extent the views of Trump’s officials actually reflect his own, this seems an attempt to settle the question.

The intention is also fascinating for the message intentioned not only for Americans, but for US allies. As the statement puts it:

Collectively, the remarks contained in this book achieve several import­ant objectives. They educate our citizens about the threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party to their livelihoods, businesses, freedoms, and values.

These speeches also alert our allies and partners so that they, too, should stand up for their own people, and for our mutual interests and values. The competition with which we are faced is not China versus the United States. It is the Chinese Communist Party, with its Marxist-Leninist and mercantilist vision for the world, versus freedom-loving people everywhere.

The headline “Putting America First” seems to clash with this message of “mutual interests and values”. It also appears a contrast with the vision outlined by Prime Minister Scott Morrison at his Aspen Security Forum lecture in August, where he chose a different international relations scholar to emphasise. Morrison relied on Hedley Bull and the concept of an “international society”. As the PM put it:

We have welcomed China’s rise as a major economic partner. It has been great for our economy and the global economy and the Indo-Pacific region. But with the economic rise does come economic and broader strategic responsibility. China has a role to enhance regional and global stability, commensurate with its new status.
Such a role is about the broader global and regional interest, rather than a narrow national or aspirational interest. Because global expectations of China are now higher, and they always have been so for the United States. Together, China and the United States have a special responsibility to uphold what Bull described as “the common set of rules” that build an international society.

Trump or Biden, it’s clear there are far bigger contests to settle.

You may also be interested in