The only good thing one can say about Donald Trump at this moment is that he appears to believe very little, including his own words. The views he has expressed, if acted upon, amount to a massive dislocation of the world, perhaps more in Asia than anywhere else.
The list is a long one: wholesale global retreat from free trade, more important to East Asia than anywhere except Canada and Mexico; overt discrimination against Muslims, which at the very least will antagonize current friends Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh plus almost the whole Middle east and a large part of Africa; withdrawal of forces from South Korea and Japan, thereby inviting them to develop nuclear capability; abandoning the nuclear deal with Iran to please Israel and hence add to chaos in that region while antagonizing US allies in Asia and Europe.
If one could draw any overall conclusion it is that Trump is an old-fashioned isolationist tinged with racism. Before Trump was even chosen as the Republican candidate, Andrew Anglin, founder of the racist website the Daily Stormer wrote: "If The Donald gets the nomination, he will almost certainly beat Hillary … white men [will] go out and vote for the first time in our lives for the one man who actually represents our interests.” And so it transpired: the voter turnout was up, with older white men leading the way.
But how far Trump believes his own rhetoric is hard to tell. Using such crude appeals is nothing new – ask Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak. The question is whether Trump will go beyond a few modest gestures to appease his supporters while not further angering the rest of a diverse nation whose white population percentage will continue to fall regardless of government policies. (It is also worth remembering that he, like the younger Bush, was elected despite being behind in the popular vote)
Trump’s foreign policies are opaque because he clearly has scant interest in the subject beyond slogans. The people around him have never spelled out any details. But the one person – Newt Gingrich – whose name has appeared most often as the likely Secretary of State seems from past pronouncements to be more of a Bush-era, Cheney-aligned neo-con believer in using US power to build a world in the US image than an isolationist.
Gingrich lacks any direct foreign policy experience but with a doctorate in European history may be better informed about the world than most of Trump’s associates.
Clearly, isolationism is no longer an option anyway. The US cannot be uninvolved globally, even if at the margin it can reduce entanglements by, for example, leaving Afghanistan and Iraq to their own devices. Squeezing a little more defense offset money out of Germany, Japan and South Korea may be possible. He could leave the nasty Mr Duterte to the mercy of the Chinese (and Russians).
But Trump, who has zero experience of government, would face insuperable obstacles from the military and bureaucracy as well as Congress to drastic changes.
Raising trade barriers would also drastically undermine US ability to influence other countries for its own benefit. TPP is already dead but with the appeal of China probably having already reached a plateau.
If Trump can be defined, it is as a somewhat unscrupulous businessman who has come a long way through bluster and self-promotion. Avoiding taxes and not paying bills on time have all been part of the game. Nonsense talk about building a wall along the Mexican border falls into the category of crude bargaining (in this case for votes) that he sees as the “art of the deal.”
But the businessman in him who does deals internationally must know perfectly well that most US big business has no interest in trade barriers and trade wars, or indeed any business in sending home the millions of undocumented workers who keep their farms and factories in business. Nor does protectionism sit well with the traditional Republic conservatives.
How Trump squares the circle of promising lower taxes (mostly for high earners) while ending Obamacare and other support for the less well-off with looking after the interests of the disgruntled white working class who voted for him has yet to be seen. Disenfranchising 40 million people who have received health insurance under Obamacare is a fine conservative idea, but when the disenfranchised take to the streets, that may be another matter.
But that will take precedence over foreign policy. Meanwhile, unlike Duterte, Trump seems likely to adjust the tenor of his voice. The reality show performer must now perform a new reality for which he is woefully unprepared. For now, Asia must keep calm and carry on as though not much has really changed.