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Back to a Trumpian future

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A Christmas boot and gifts featuring the image of Republican presidential candidate and former US President Donald Trump are displayed ahead of Trump's campaign event in Waterloo, Iowa, US, 19 December 2023 (Photo: Reuters/Scott Morgan).


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No first-term President of the United States since the beginning of scientific polling has been as unpopular at this point of the presidential cycle as Joe Biden is now — at least if you believe the most recent polls. On the most important international issue facing Biden, the Gaza conflict, barely a third of voters approve of his performance. Moreover, the demographic most upset with Washington’s response to the conflict is one that could doom his chances in a crucial swing state: more Arab-Americans live in Michigan than in any other state bar California.

Not even the relatively healthy economy — the Federal Reserve has against the odds engineered a successful disinflation while maintaining respectable GDP growth — seems to be winning Biden much affection from voters.

If he stays in the race, Biden will almost certainly be facing a rematch with his 2020 opponent. Donald Trump is both a wounded political animal and a dangerous one. Defeat three years ago was followed by an astonishing number of legal cases against the former president, both criminal and civil. His involvement in the events around the storming of the Capitol on 6 January 2021 following his loss of the presidency is the most serious and has led to his indictment on three counts of conspiracy and one on obstruction. If found guilty, Trump could well be sent to prison, potentially for decades. Avoiding this fate is now Trump’s most basic political objective.

For his most avid supporters, Trump’s political appeal has lost no potency. He leads Biden in most head-to-head polls and would likely cruise to victory against Kamala Harris, one likely Democratic replacement were Biden to decide against running a second time. The odds of a second Trump presidency seem to be getting better every day.

What does this mean for the rest of the world? Under Trump, the United States was at best an unreliable partner to allies in Asia and beyond. Two of the most emblematic actions of the first year of Trump’s presidency were to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement and to drop out from the Trans-Pacific Partnership: both were signals that the United States would abandon its postwar role of subsidising and supervising the global multilateral economic system.

American economic leadership has of course not always been an unalloyed good for other countries: its economic weight, combined with the political muscle of certain domestic industries, has sometimes allowed it to shape economic rules and institutions to its own benefit.

But no administration has been as blatant about pursuing short-term economic benefits for the American economy — or some totemic parts of it, like the steel sector — at the cost of degrading, perhaps even destroying the system of rules and restraints that are necessary for global economic prosperity. A second-term Trump would feel even less compunction about blowing up or severely weakening global institutions in the pursuit of American self-interest.

As Tom Pepinsky argues in this week’s lead article — part of our annual Year in Review series that surveys the major developments in the region — the likelihood of another Trump term compels policymakers in Asia to think seriously about how they can steer their way through four years of an unpredictable, unreliable and unruly American administration.

Perhaps the best hope for Asian partners is simply that Trump continues not to care very much about the region ‘beyond his casual anti-Chinese rhetoric and curiosity about Kim Jong-un’, as Pepinsky puts it. His interest in US relations with Europe is likely to be actively damaging. A unilateral withdrawal from NATO, which Trump seemed eager to pursue, is less likely now that legislation has been passed preventing the President from doing so without authorisation from Congress. Trump, though, has many other ways of undermining US security cooperation with allies in Europe.

The more active danger for Asian policymakers is on the economic front, especially since Trump’s move to a protectionist stance on trade and industrial policy is now more or less bipartisan. Both Republican and Democratic politicians are responsible for the gridlock in the World Trade Organization. Whatever the result of the elections in November 2024, those who support a free and open global economic system will have few friends in Washington.

The challenges for Asian countries would no doubt be less acute under a re-elected Biden presidency than under a return to Trump. Regardless, Trump is as much a symptom as he is a cause of a much more fundamental malaise. Trump exploited, but did not create, a powerful if misguided sense among many Americans that the prosperity of other countries, particularly China, had come at their expense.

It’s safe to assume that the political instincts of whoever returns to the White House next November will continue to be shaped by those dynamics.

The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

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