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Trump's domestic standing and US foreign policy

If things break bad for Trump, you can expect at least two consequences for US policy toward the Asia-Pacific.

Photo: US Department of Defense
Photo: US Department of Defense

This week in Washington brought another instalment for the many hooked on the who-did-what-and-when investigations into the links between Russia and Donald Trump's presidential campaign and now White House. Attorney General Jeff Sessions' appearance in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee generated plenty of headlines, even though he didn't appear to reveal - or admit to - anything new.

For many in the US, and particularly in Washington, every development in this saga-on-many-fronts is worth poring over, poking and probing. But what about the rest of the us? Do we need to keep track of every turn? Probably not. However, a visiting American did give a Sydney audience pause for thought last night when discussing how domestic politics affects a president's behaviour on the world stage.

Jake Sullivan is the 2017 Lowy Institute Telstra Distinguished Fellow. He was a senior foreign policy adviser to Hillary Clinton's 2016 election campaign, having ‘quietly catapulted through the ranks of the Democratic foreign policy establishment’, as Vox magazine put it. On Tuesday night, Sullivan delivered the 2017 Owen Harries Lecture that focused on five key aspects of US foreign policy in the Asia Pacific. However, noting that 'Trump’s domestic standing will have at least some impact on his decision-making abroad', Sullivan also spoke about the 'the looming issue of what will happen to Trump’s political fortunes back at home'. He gave those of us outside the Beltway this handy list of what to keep an eye on: 

The key things to look at: What do the numbers look like in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections? What kind of progress do the FBI and Congress make on their investigations into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia? Where does the investigation into possible obstruction of justice end up? Do prominent Republicans break with the president in any kind of decisive way, on policy or otherwise?

If things break bad for Trump, you can expect at least two consequences for our policy toward the Asia-Pacific. First, he will be distracted, so he and his administration will be paying less attention. And since he has failed to staff up, the normal functioning of the U.S. government will be more anemic than usual. Second, he will be more prone to dramatic and potentially destabilizing moves, on both the economic and security fronts.

And by the way, the impact of domestic politics on foreign policy goes beyond whether Trump is up or down. We are facing the possibility of another debt ceiling crisis or government shutdown this year, and while I think neither is likely to happen, both are distinct possibilities. I was traveling in Asia with Secretary Clinton when the U.S. credit rating was downgraded during a previous debt ceiling debacle. So I know what kind of impact this can have. 

A full transcript of the speech is available here. Jake Sullivan will be speaking in Melbourne on Thursday night on American foreign policy in an age of populism, and will be in Canberra next Monday for an 'In Conversation' event with Lowy Institute Senior Fellow Sam Roggeveen.


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