United States Foreign Policy and Populism

05 Jun 2018
United States Foreign Policy and Populism
In May 2018 the Perth USAsia Centre hosted Ambassador Frank Lavin in Perth for a private roundtable discussion, as part of the Perth USAsia Centre’s Trade Week, which included a public panel with the visiting trade, business and foreign policy experts, a policy-generating trade strategy session and a private roundtable discussion with Professor Taeho Bark, former Korean Minister for Trade. The private roundtable with Ambassador Lavin focused on American foreign policy, populism and how domestic political culture drives foreign policy decisions.

Populism and American Foreign Policy

When examining speeches by President Donald Trump, it is difficult to draw any conclusions which adhere to traditional foreign policy considerations such as ‘America’s role in the world’ and ‘what the US should do about China’s actions in the South China Sea. President Donald Trump confounds observers. He has an extraordinarily theatrical style and is often described as erratic. Often, people come to the quick conclusion that he is absent of principles and architecture. However, it can be argued that Donald Trump has process principles which guide him. Populism being chief among them.

His approach can be broken into four main aspects; grievance base, emotional connectivity, populism is exculpatory and the belief that policy choices are cost free and there are no trade-offs.

Populism is Trump’s architecture for foreign policy and policymaking more broadly. This stems largely from how he won his election. His approach can be broken into four main aspects; grievance base, emotional connectivity, populism is exculpatory and the belief that policy choices are cost free and there are no trade-offs. Most political figures have exhibited elements of populism to varying degrees however it is more evident in President Trump than has been seen previously.

Discussion Highlights

Populism focuses largely on what is wrong, what populists do not like and what they are unhappy about. The benefits of globalisation and trade have been distributed unequally with some benefitting enormously while others feel minimal positive effects. This has largely contributed to the broadening the grievance candidate base. During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump tapped into the existing grievance base in America by focusing on three domestic issues which have international applications; immigration, trade and terrorism.

Traditionally a President is expected to find common ground, a way to connect with people and work towards shared goals. President Trump however, does not operate by these principles and exhibits no personal interest in the concerns expressed by others or the ability to evaluate these concerns. Few world leaders have established a level of emotional connectivity with President Trump with Prime Ministers Justin Trudeau of Canada and Shinzo Abe of Japan, being two exceptions to this. The early successes of Prime Ministers Trudeau and Abe signify that while not all leaders have found emotional connectivity with President Trump, some have been successful.

When meeting President Trump for the first time in February 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came bearing a gift for Trump which contained a photo of former Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau and Donald Trump at a dinner in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. The gift provided a way for Prime Minister Trudeau to establish an early connection with Trump. This was followed by a roundtable where President Trump and Prime Minister Trudeau joined female executives for a discussion on women in the workforce. This roundtable was first proposed by Prime Minister Trudeau and his team, who identified it as a way to find common ground. Involving Ms Ivanka Trump, the President’s daughter in this roundtable discussion and the proceeding formation of a joint taskforce on women in business was key both to the success of the meeting and the establishment of an emotional connection between the two leaders.

fl01.jpgAmbassador Frank Lavin, former US Under-Secretary of International Trade and former US Ambassador to Singapore, at his foreign policy roundtable discussion on populism and foreign policy under US President Donald Trump.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was the first foreign leader to meet with then President-elect Trump in Trump Tower in November, 2016. Prime Minister Abe attended this visit bearing a gift of a gold-inlayed driver. During a subsequent visit Prime Minister Abe and his wife visited President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach where the two leaders, on the suggestion of Prime Minister Abe, played a round of golf. Prime Minister Abe had likened the golf outing as reminiscent of a round of golf played between his grandfather Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi and President Dwight Eisenhower. These visits and early efforts sparked a continued high level of engagement between the two leaders.

Obama and Trump Comparison

In varying ways, both former President Barack Obama and President Trump exhibit the era they are from, one of post-post-cold war. The post-cold war era reflects one in which the institutions work and the architecture established over 1945-1990 remains largely intact with the same principles despite the fall of the Soviet Union.  The post-post-cold-war era however is one where the institutions have faded and where there is a lack of interoperability. The cost benefit analysis during the transition between these two eras has shifted, leaving the U.S. able to question what their role is or should be. Barack Obama and President Trump have different approaches to foreign policy. During his presidency, Barack Obama reflected an attitude of good will. This approach worked extremely well with allies however, has limitations when applied to more hostile stakeholders. Alternatively, President Trump, operates from a rhetoric of ‘it is an unfair and hostile world but I alone can stop this’, proceeding to be unfriendly with stakeholders. This approach can work with unfriendly stakeholders however can be damaging with allies.

President Trump, operates from a rhetoric of ‘it is an unfair and hostile world but I alone can stop this’, proceeding to be unfriendly with stakeholders.

Future Prospects

The foreign policy question of the 21st century, both for the U.S. and other countries within the Indo-Pacific, is China. There is heightened strategic concern over trade with China, a country which has not defined its place within the world. Countries across the region have adopted a variety of strategies to respond to  China; in advocated for a rules-based international order, the region is conveying a message to China that they wish for them to return to old systems in which the country’s interference in the existing rules-based order was minimal. President Trump has responded to China’s action regarding trade by placing tariffs, an action which could be interpreted as a pricing exercise. China’s action could be consequential to the Indo-Pacific region.

It is hard to predict the future actions of the Trump administration as his rhetoric during his time in office has outpaced expectations. Regularly changing standards and norms signify that the world we are going to is different to that which we have known. Social and technological change will also contribute to a changing role of government. The longevity of President Trump’s stamp on the office of the President, American foreign policy and society more broadly, remains yet to be seen.

Featured image courtesy of Pixabay.


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