As the front-runner for the U.S. Republican Party’s presidential nomination in the 2016 general election, Donald Trump’s views on foreign policy deserve serious attention. Fortunately, in the past few weeks, more than a few reporters have given us just that. Over at Politico, Thomas Wright outlined the consistency in Trump’s thinking about the world–a consistency that suggests that his bombastic rhetoric on the campaign trail isn’t just for show. It reflects a deeply held belief about the world and how the United States simply gets a raw deal regularly.
Meanwhile, at Bloomberg View, Josh Rogin reveals the “Trump Doctrine,” outlining a range of advisers who have consulted for Trump and the principles undergirding his would-be foreign policy should he become president. (Also, over at the Washington Post, in a post that’s probably only 30 percent trolling, Dan Drezner suggests Trump may represent something like the apotheosis of a realist foreign policy candidate.)
There’s a lot to be written about the bad, the worse, and the ugly in Trump’s conception of foreign policy, but the takeaway that should be of interest to readers here at The Diplomat is that if you thought the United States’ pivot to Asia has been sluggish, wait until to you see Trump’s Pivot from Asia. It’ll be real classy.
If elected president, Donald Trump would mean the end of the alliances that have underpinned the regional architecture of East Asia for over 50 years. Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines would be left to fend for themselves as the United States retreated into herself to… become great again (or something like that).
Take Japan, for example. Trump resents the terms of the U.S.-Japan alliance, which he seems as fundamentally inequitable. That’s true, actually. The alliance is inequitable, but that’s by design. Trump is upset that the United States is obliged to defend Japan, but that Tokyo faces no similar obligations to return the favor. As a businessman to the core, he sees it as a bad deal. What’s terrifying is that this is a sincere and long-held view by Trump.
As Wright notes in his piece, Trump, in an open letter to the people of the United States in 1987, the heyday of Japan buying up America wholesale, said that it was time for the United States to “end our vast deficits by making Japan and others who can afford it pay.” Rogin confirms that, in 2016, Trump’s advisers say that he would move to renegotiate the U.S.-Japan security cooperation treaty.
It’s unclear if Trump has actually updated his views on Japan since the late-1980s and early-1990s. In 2014, before announcing his campaign, he lamented that the United States “[allows] Japan to sell us millions of cars with zero import tax and we can’t make a trade deal with them.” (Referring to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.) He seems to peddle the same ideas about Japan’s runaway economic success. (I’m sure Shinzo Abe and Haruhiko Kuroda would welcome Trump’s alternate-reality Japan.)
The U.S. alliance with South Korea is a similar story from Trump and would likely also end up on the chopping block should he win the presidency.
“South Korea is absolutely killing us on trade deals. Their surplus vs U.S. is massive – and we pay for their protection. WHO NEGOTIATES?,” he tweeted in April 2014, well before announcing his run for president. In 2013, he asked “How long will we go on defending South Korea from North Korea without payment? When will they start to pay us?” (As John Power notes in a recent post in these pages, South Korea does share a great deal of the burden for the alliance–of course, none of that matters for Trump.)
For Trump, alliances are a bad deal and have been for years. Assuming that Trump is sincere in his skepticism of these U.S. alliances and has a genuine conception of what the U.S. national interest is, it is clear that he places little weight on anything like the preservation of the post-war liberal order in East Asia. (Here, again, Drezner’s take on Trumpian realism is helpful.)
For the ostensibly serious foreign policy candidates running for the presidency, there are real questions to ask about the United States’ alliances in East Asia. Notably, do they need further “rebalancing” away from Washington? Debates over operational control in South Korea and revised defense guidelines with Japan have brought that question to the fore in recent years. Are they equipped to deter acute and chronic geopolitical challenges in the region? Finally, how can these alliances be expanded and networked to incorporate like-minded partner states? The Obama administration certainly grappled with these questions and any serious successor will have to as well.
Trump may come around to appreciate the value of U.S. alliances down the line. After all, he does seem to think about China quite a bit.