After ten gruelling months of campaigns, the contest for the presidency of the United States is almost at an end. Clinton and Trump, with their polar views on immigration, trade and foreign policy, are predicted to wield vastly different influences on global affairs. Whatever the outcome, the relationship between the US and the rest of the world has been fundamentally altered. Such is the consensus among three regional experts:
EUROPE: Xenia Wickett, Project Director of the US Project at Chatham House
Whoever wins, from the European perspective the world has fundamentally changed. When European countries look to the US they look for three essential ingredients. The first is a partner in driving forward the Western ideal and supporting the architectures that have been created over the last 60 to 70 years that define the way that nations interact with one another (such as the UN, the IMF and the World Bank). The second is the US being an economic power, a factor that has been sensitive since 2008 when the US slowdown had huge implications for European countries. The third ingredient is the US being a provider of global security and stability – as the world’s policeman – as well as, more specifically, America’s spending, support and engagement in NATO. All of these principal objectives are right now in question regardless of the election outcome:
• The Western ideal has been questioned. In the United States right now the debate from Donald Trump is that election is going to be ‘stolen’, that the other side has ‘cheated’. Over the last few months the rhetoric has been less than constructive. So the idea that European countries look to the US today as an ideal to aspire to, something that they want to join and be recognised as, has kind of gone. The concept of America espousing this ideal is significantly damaged.
• America as an economic power. Here there are two challenges. First, if you thought that US politics was bipartisan before the election, we have got a whole new degree of political partisanship today. That must be added to the fact that even if Trump wins, the Republican party is going to go through huge changes in the coming years trying to hold itself together. Such can also be said about the Democratic party, which is going to have to merge in some coherent way the Sanders faction with the Clinton faction. Right now, it is hard to define whether the fights are more within the parties or between the parties. Meanwhile, the level of political partisanship is gong to make it almost impossible to get anything done. Some of the big economic challenges that the US faces on taxation, on how to re-engage and mitigate inequality is going to be impossible to get through Washington. Secondly – and it doesn’t really matter whether you’re talking about Trump or Clinton – TTIP isn’t going anywhere and neither is trade. So as Europe used to look to America as an open economic driving force, now it sees that actually the US is getting kind of protectionist. Both of these slow downs will impact its economic image in Europe.
• America as a provider of security. Europe will question that too, whether it’s Clinton or Trump [that wins]. It goes beyond defence sequestration and funding for the military to a more profound point, one that America has been saying for two decades: that it doesn’t want to be the world’s policeman. For the first time America is now acting in a way that echoes those words. Such was central to Obama’s foreign policy agenda and it is likely that both Clinton and Trump will preside over a country that continues down this path towards expecting others to bear burdens and step up. This is true whether we are talking about NATO or more broadly.
So the three principal relationships between Europe and the United States are in question, and they have been raised by recent events or by the current state of the political debate. If it is Clinton that wins, there is a sense that some of these challenges would be mitigated and that one of the first things she would do would be to reassure allies in Asia and Europe. While she will pivot to Asia, she won’t ignore Europe. Clearly, she is more open to trade than Donald Trump is. On the other hand, one of the things that makes Europe nervous about Trump is that he prizes unpredictability and the transactional nature of engagement. It’s going to be very hard to have a relationship with the US under Donald Trump. At the same time, traditional allies also don’t necessarily want to be associated with an America like this. So if leadership requires followers, the question is where do the followers come from?
ASIA: Dr Michal Meidan, Associate Fellow, Asia Programme, Chatham House
The way the debate has unfolded raises question about managing domestic politics for any elected president, be it Clinton or Trump. What kind of congress they will have to deal with? How easily will they be able to push forward their different policy choices? Perhaps for Asia, the first complicated factor is what happens to the defence budget for key allies in the region.
The second is the global context, specifically, this anti-globalisation and anti-trade sentiment. If we have learnt anything from Brexit it is that there is a strong undercurrent of dissatisfaction that is pervasive in the US, that persists in Europe and I think for some of Asia too, perhaps most noticeably in China. Asian leaders have to question how much that resonates within their own domestic politics and how much of this anti-establishment sentiment exists for their populations.
The third complicating factor is Asia itself, which is going through some major political transitions. The year ahead will not be easy and looks to compound a lot of these anxieties about the global economic and trading outlook. Thailand, following the death of the King, is an open question. Perhaps the base case is that things will muddle along in a stable transition, but things could also go wrong. Myanmar is another country that is in transition, opening up to the West and the US. Meanwhile, there are elections coming up in Malaysia and Cambodia and, of course, the political transition in China in 2017, which adds to an already different China that we have become used to. Ever since Xi Jinping came to power, a lot of paradigms about China such as economic growth and political management have changed and will continue to change. Of course, the rise of Duterte in the Philippines is an additional change of tack in the US alliances and the general configuration of politics and geopolitics in the region.
The simple way of looking at it is the difference between rhetoric and reality. Whatever has been said, once a President comes in there will be constraints: domestic and international. However, I do not think we should be complacent in thinking that affairs will keep going as they have been. Before the last few months, everyone was assuming that Clinton would win the election and few gave a second thought to Trump except as a side note. Over the past few months, however, more and more governments in Asia have been studying Trump: looking at his biography and analysing his policy statements.
In this context Clinton is a known commodity to Asia. She has served as Secretary of State, she has been to the region, governments there know her as well as her likely team in Washington. For China, however, she is not seen as the best possibility: she has been hard with the nation on human rights, on trade, on the South China Sea and she was the architect of the Pivot to Asia, which is seen very much as an anti-China group. For other Asian countries, however, she is predictable and someone the Japanese and most Southeast Asian nations would be happy to see in the White House. All the while, the Chinese were thinking of her as a necessary evil until Donald Trump became a plausible option.
The statements Trump has made has generated a lot of concern for most of Northeast and Southeast Asia. Even if you assume that his ‘erecting trade barriers and imposing 45 per cent tariffs on China’ are not realistic, there is the huge concern from the lack of respect with which he discusses Asian countries and people in general. His statements about rethinking his alliances and pulling out of bases in Japan and Korea are very worrying for those countries, as well as his anti-TPP rhetoric. Delaying or preventing TPP is, in a simple sense, bad news for Japan and Vietnam. Any Southeast Asian nations that liked the possibility of using TPP to hedge against China will feel it unlikely under a Trump presidency. Further to that, Trump’s comment about non-intervention in the South China Sea, about pulling back and letting the Asians deal with Asia themselves is extremely worrying for many countries in the region.
Trump statements are perhaps of least concern to China. In fact at this point the Chinese are considering that Trump would actually be good news for the them. Especially in that – at least from what we know know – he would try to reduce engagement in the region. TTP not happening takes a lot of pressure off China and means it won’t have to push forward other trade agreements that are already looking quite wobbly. Also, if anything has been the biggest victory for the Chinese press, it’s Trump. The press there have been happily echoing the nonsensical debate that is happening in America. They see it as a triumph of non-democratic leadership over the chaotic democracies.