Donald Trump’s foreign policy philosophy and methods are a distinct departure from that of his predecessor, Barack Obama, with a new focus on how relationships with other countries can benefit the US. Dr Oliver Turner and Professor Inderjeet Parmar write that, driven by self-interest, Trump’s strategy seeks to counter the perceived threat of China by considering the Indo-Pacific region to be a coherent theatre where US influence can operate.
First published in March 2020.
The Covid-19 global pandemic, which began in China in December and has since spread around the globe, highlights significant, recently emerging features of world and great power politics, including changes in style and substance of US strategy in the Indo-Pacific between the Obama and the Trump presidencies. While the principal goals of each administration may not have changed in any radical sense, there are notable changes in the philosophy and methods of American power under President Trump. These are the core conclusions of our new study: from Obama’s liberal hegemony and interdependence to Trump’s America First ultra-nationalism.
Under Obama, the US strategy, built broadly on the established international framework, tried to construct a US-Asian system of relationships that would be dense with economic, financial and security relationships and agreements, in order to create the conditions for economic growth, freer trade, and political stability. Yet, there were significant concerns about labour standards. With Trump, by contrast, the US has moved towards an approach based on bullying other nations to achieve his administration’s America-First goals.
From US leadership to America First
Obama’s systematic relationship-building strategy was as much designed to manage and limit China’s growing regional significance as it was to build a US-led system. A key feature of that system was a global pandemic co-ordination strategy, with representation on the US National Security Council (NSC), and foreign aid to stem epidemics to over fifty countries. “Promoting global health security,” Obama’s Executive Order 13747 in November 2016, noted, “is a core tenet of our national strategy for countering biological threats. No single nation can be prepared if others remain unprepared to counter biological threats.” The system operated within and between states, as well as coordinating international and inter-governmental organisations, providing early warning systems and practical remedial action.
Special attention was paid to authoritarian states, for two reasons. First, because they would likely under-report or suppress news of the true scale of the epidemic and make it harder to take measures that were needed. Second, because it enabled US intelligence services to recruit more agents on the ground from discontented citizens. There was a hard edge to the strategy – it was internationalism married to power politics.
Conversely, President Trump’s hyper-nationalist, coercive America First strategy is much more extractive of value from relationships with other countries. It maintains the historic hub-and-spokes (with the US at the centre of several outward looking relationships) bilateral character of US relations with regional allies but renders them more transactional. Trump wants regional allies to pay more towards their own security, for example, and reduce trade tariffs and open their markets to US goods and services. On global pandemics, the Trump administration dismantled the NSC’s global health team, leaving just two experts on pandemics out of 100 NSC policy specialists. Most of the pandemic specialists had direct knowledge of handling the Ebola crisis in 2014 and earlier ones such as swine flu in 2008 and SARS in 2003. While several health-security experts and staffers were moved to other departments, such as Health, and Homeland Security, the efficiency of the system appears to have been diminished. The fact, and sheer scale, of the coronavirus appears to have taken the White House by surprise, despite earlier warnings from Trump’s Office of National Intelligence in 2018 and 2019.
The Indo-Pacific and American power: A complex and rapidly evolving relationship
Our new book considers a wider range of issues, states and regional associations regarding the US’ role in what’s referred to as the “Indo-Pacific” and its significance for world order. The Indo-Pacific – a designation now more commonly deployed in the Trump era but one which circulated in the latter years of the Obama presidency – is designed to convey both the region’s importance to the global economy and interstate politics, and the increasing significance it holds for Washington. The normalised notion of an ‘Indo-Pacific’ demonstrates that the US thinks of a coherent theatre of global operations spanning the Pacific and Indian Oceans, as well as such strategic waterways of the Straits of Malacca through which so much world shipping passes. It is a ‘joined-up’ strategy to counter the perceived “China threat”. Particularly during the leadership of Xi Jinping, China has embarked upon a new phase of global engagement in which a range newly formed Beijing-led international institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) have emerged, along with the highly ambitious Belt and Road Initiative.
Several of the authors in our book demonstrate that during his presidency Barack Obama stiffened his positions on China, as well as North Korea, and that neither ASEAN nor the East Asia Summit were perceived to have lived up to their promise. Hence, change had already begun in directions which pointed towards Trump’s increasingly aggressive posture.
Obama’s ‘strategic patience’ approach to Pyongyang, for example, was accompanied by additional sanctions and the deployment of more US weaponry in the region, much to China’s chagrin, as Bruce Cumings argues in his chapter. As Christopher K. Colley and Sumit Ganguly write, India and the US under Obama found common cause to further align in response to challenges seen to stem from China, with Trump doing more to sustain rather than disrupt that trajectory. The Trump administration is seen by several of our authors, including Michael Mastanduno, Robert Sutter, and Börje Ljunggren to have brought new elements of unpredictability to regional US policy, and uncertainty to regional allies. The departure of Obama’s stylistically and substantively more measured leadership strategy is lamented by authors including Peter Gries, with others like Matteo Dian arguing that a resulting leadership vacuum is being exploited by China.
Yet, the picture is complicated, and many including Nick Bisley and Atul Bhardwaj show rhetorical changes by Trump have not necessarily brought clear ruptures with the past. Contributors Maryanne Kelton and Zac Rogers demonstrate that while key (‘middle power’) allies such as Australia are having to navigate newly fraught relations with Washington under Trump, the US continues to strive for regional primacy in such key arenas as cyberspace and cybersecurity.
We can understand, at least in part, the Obama administration’s sense of urgency, and the Trump administration’s radical and undiplomatic rhetoric in the context of already heightened bipartisan American worries about China’s role in Asia and the world, not least as it becomes ever more equipped to evolve from rule taker to rule maker. Yet, their specific concepts of how US power should work to confront upcoming challenges require careful study, analysis and interpretation. In this regard, Trump’s America First bilateral self-interest may represent an important shift, at least of emphasis, and possibly a return to the more traditional hub-and-spokes system in Asia. The overall goal remains a shared one regardless of the specific strategy: to maintain the United States’ superiority as a global power.
Yet, as the COVID-19 crisis demonstrates, shared goals underestimate the lived consequences for millions of people across the world of a change in an American administration’s philosophy and methods.🔷
This article is based on the new book, The US in the Indo-Pacific: Obama’s legacy and the Trump transition (Manchester University Press, 2020), published in February 2020.