The Return Of US Isolationism – Analysis


By Thomas Pepinsky

The United States is less than a year away from its next presidential election. Although former president Donald Trump faces numerous civil and criminal indictments, he will most likely be the Republican Party’s nominee for the third election in a row. Incumbent President Joe Biden will run for re-election from the Democratic Party, hoping that the country’s strong economic performance will ease voters’ concerns about his age and fitness for office.

The 2024 presidential election campaign comes at a moment of uncertainty in international politics. The United States and China are searching for a new footing, Israel continues its invasion of Gaza in response to Hamas’s terrorist actions and war crimes and Ukraine continues to mount a successful armed resistance to Russia’s illegal invasion. The Indo-Pacific security architecture is also changing, with new initiatives such as AUKUS and the Quadbringing Australia closer to the United States as a central player in the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy.

The outlook of a second Trump presidency for US allies in the Asia Pacific is grim. Trump has a serious chance of being re-elected. He is the face of the Republican Party, and current polling shows Trump neck-and-neck with Biden. Although horserace polls this far in advance of the election are notoriously unreliable, the signals they are sending should not be ignored.

Trump’s second term may well be more extreme than his first term. Trump’s central policy concerns are domestic, driven by his belief that he will face a lengthy prison sentence if convicted of even a subset of his crimes. But he also understands that his political supporters would gleefully endorse dictatorial methods if used against Democrats, progressives, Muslims, immigrants, or their allies.

Trump has reportedly pledged to appoint loyal supporters to positions that have traditionally been nonpartisan and professionalised. He allegedly plans to surround himself with sycophants who will implement his most dangerous ideas about how to use federal power to crush his perceived enemies at home.

Unlike during his first term, Trump understands now that his personal fate depends on his ability to act decisively against core US institutions. This is not a secret, this is his campaign platform. He has a political team that will enable him to do this as soon as he takes office. Having failed on 6 January 2021 to overturn American democracy from the outside through seditious conspiracy, he will try to overturn it from the inside, using executive power.

Because the federal government is central to US diplomacy, defence and foreign policy, such actions will reverberate far beyond US borders. Given Trump’s fondness for Russian President Vladimir Putin, his willingness to sacrifice Ukrainian national security for his personal benefit and the decline of the moderate internationalist Republicans in Congress, many options are on the table for US policy in Europe. They include a unilateral withdrawal from NATO and a permanent end to military support for Ukraine. This focus on NATO and Russia means that the United States’ European allies stand to lose the most from Trump’s second presidency.

Trump is similarly uncommitted to maintaining the status quo security architecture in the Asia Pacific. Yet it is not clear how much he understands or cares about the region beyond his casual anti-Chinese rhetoric and curiosity about Kim Jong-un. Trump’s relative indifference to Asia suggests that US allies in the Indo-Pacific may not fare as poorly under a second Trump administration as European allies, but uncertainty itself is a threat to the regional strategic order.

Although the emerging Hamas–Putin partnership complicates Trump’s Middle East policy, Trump will likely align himself with segments of the Israeli society that seek a maximalist solution to the conflict. This solution may include a permanent reoccupation of Gaza, even more settler violence in the West Bank, massive and permanent displacement of Palestinian civilians and a decisive end to the fragile status quo in Jerusalem’s holy sites.

Any one of these outcomes would strain US alliances. There is no appetite for more dead civilians and the settler movement has no durable support outside of Israel.

Biden’s foreign policy leadership has largely been a boon for allies and partners around the world. Despite the Afghanistan withdrawal, the subsequent return of the Taliban and the AUKUS rollout that generated concerns from NATO allies in Europe, Biden believes in multilateral institutions. He understands that the United States has built a global order that provides security and prosperity for Americans. That same order has also provided stability, security and prosperity for key allies in the Asia Pacific like Australia.

Biden has steered the United States through a difficult period in global politics. Despite his errors and inherent biases of superpower diplomacy and foreign policy, Biden undoubtedly understands the principles of multilateralism and follows them when he can.

Because Trump is an inherently oppositional figure, his politics are rejectionist. If Biden supports US leadership, multilateral institutions and foreign policy cooperation, Trump will pursue the opposite. While immediate consequences are likely to be worse for US allies in the North Atlantic, partners in the Indo-Pacific should plan for what a Trump presidency might look like, and how they will respond to safeguard their security and prosperity at home.

  • About the author: Thomas Pepinsky is Walter F LaFeber Professor of Government and Public Policy and Director of the Southeast Asia Program at Cornell University.
  • Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum

East Asia Forum

East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centred on the Asia Pacific region. It consists of an online publication and a quarterly magazine, East Asia Forum Quarterly, which aim to provide clear and original analysis from the leading minds in the region and beyond.

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