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Making sense of Trump’s foreign policy


by Richard Javad Heydarian

Just as expected, the opening weeks of the Donald Trump presidency have been accompanied by provocation, partial capitulation, and dizzying combination of defiance and assurance. As a result, many allies incessantly scratch their heads, trying to figure out what to make out of the new American president’s foreign policy, particularly here in Asia.

On one hand, there is cause for worry and deep concern. Consistent with its “America first” principle, the Trump administration has significantly toughened up the superpower’s immigration and trade policy. In fact, in these two areas, we are beginning to see the folly of not taking the new occupant of White House both literally and seriously. Sometimes, Trump really means what he says – and we should recognize this with unshakable sobriety, not wishful thinking.

Just weeks into office, Trump resurrected a bygone anti-immigration policy approach, harkening back to the late-19th century, when America, amid a populist mini-revolt, began to restrict the entry of Asians, particularly Chinese, under the notorious California Anti-Chinese Legislations (1852-1878).

In a stroke of a pen, Trump effectively categorized tens of millions of ordinary people as potential security threat to his country. Refugees and citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries faced either temporary or permanent ban. What ensued was nothing short of humanitarian disaster and soft power suicide, as the world painfully watched a five-year-old kid being handcuffed, parents separated from children, refugees literally left in the air, and scores of valid visa holders facing detention, interrogation, and, in some cases, deportation. It was a total mayhem.

Trump’s executive order was so divisive and controversial that some have come to fear the prospect of a constitutional crisis and civil strife, as thousands of protests and dozens of courts around the country feverishly fight back against what they see as a negation of what America stands for.  The de facto “Muslim ban” isn’t the only indication of troubling consistency between Trump’s provocative and inflammatory election promises, on one hand, and actual policy, on the other.

Earlier, Trump also scrapped the Transpacific Partnership Agreement (TPP), a pan-regional free trade framework aimed at deepening economic integration between America and its Pacific partners, from Chile to Vietnam. The TPP was in fact the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s Pivot to Asia policy, aimed at constraining China’s rising influence and military assertiveness in the region.  America will pay strategic costs for this protectionist turn.

With the TPP down the drain, Beijing has become the undisputed economic power in Asia, well poised to push for alternative trading arrangements, namely the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and Free Trade Area for the Asia-Pacific agreement (FTAAP).

The implications are mindboggling. For seven decades, America has been the guarantor of a liberal international order, defined by free trade, free movement of capital and technology, and increasingly free movement of (white-collar and, to a lesser extent, blue-collar) labor across borders. In fact, America is fundamentally a nation of immigrants. All of a sudden, the country seems like a fortress, keeping away hordes of immigrants and refugees at bay.

Note: This is Part 1 of a series of essays on Trump’s foreign policy.

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