Donald Trump is off to a surprisingly good start.
While his enemies in the Democratic party and the American press (which is largely the same thing) froth at the mouth, enraged that their world view has been found wanting, the President-elect has assembled a thoroughly solid cabinet up to now.
While there are some (to coin a phrase) deplorable picks – such as alt-right guru Steve Bannon as political adviser and the monomaniacal general Michael Flynn (everything is about Isis and radical Islam) as national security adviser – on the whole this is a cabinet Mitt Romney, or for that matter President Eisenhower, could have chosen.
Easily the best choice so far has been general James “Mad Dog” Mattis to be secretary of defence. Despite his colourful nickname and near-legendary status as a fighting Marine, Mattis is blessedly more George Marshall than George Patton. Thoughtful, well-read and well-travelled, Mattis – a man with Marcus Aurelius by his bedside, which counts for a lot – has already convinced the emotional President-elect that there are better ways to get information from prisoners than waterboarding. Mattis could well be, following in Marshall’s footsteps, the next great secretary of defence.
All this good news has led to Trump’s favourability numbers soaring. Last week’s Bloomberg poll gave him a favourable rating of 50 per cent, stratospherically up from a mere 33 per cent in August of this year. The President-elect is enjoying an Indian Summer in a country that has made it clear it is hungry for a new direction.
Saying this, the iceberg of governing looms ahead, when Trump’s many inconsistencies and unpredictability will prove more a hindrance than the help they have been in making him the ultimate elusive moving target in American politics. Nowhere is this truer than in Asia, where the President-elect is in the muddle-headed process of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
During the Obama years, America’s geostrategic position in East Asia has gone from strength to strength. While China under Xi Jinping has counter-productively bullied the region by throwing its weight around in the East China and South China Seas, America has been the ultimate beneficiary. At present, US ties to old allies Japan, South Korea, and Australia have rarely been closer while links to new and pivotal allies such as India, Vietnam, and other Asean states have never been better.
Capping all this off is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the jewel in the crown of the Obama administration’s Asia pivot. TPP is a free trade deal which is about far more than free trade; in essence it economically locked in this burgeoning alliance, nurturing America’s ties – both strategic and economic – with the fastest growing region in the world. By planning to withdraw from TPP, Trump, in his protectionist know-nothingism, has undone eight years of painstaking work in a matter of weeks.
The consequences are sure to be dire. Not missing a beat, the very effective Chinese have made the rounds of the region, noting that America, following its abrogation of the TPP deal, is not to be trusted. Instead, Beijing has sensibly enough offered its own trade deal as an alternative, pointedly excluding the US much as TPP side-lined China. Erratic Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, in his pivot to Beijing, may amount to the canary in the coal mine, the first of many putative US allies now set to desert Trump’s unpredictable and irrational America.
It is in this context that Trump’s phone call to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen must be viewed. There is nothing wrong with shaking up the status quo with China in theory; for it is true that Beijing has yet to fully open its market to American goods in a reciprocal fashion. There is also nothing wrong in making it clear to China that old shibboleths (such as pretending long-time American ally Taiwan does not exist) are up for debate.
Indeed, this is not necessarily a bad opening negotiating position with Beijing in general. But Trump’s bold new posture becomes folly as it has been done unilaterally without consulting America’s allies in the region, nervous about American inconstancy in the first place.
This is because, as much as Trump might wish the multipolar world away, it exists as a fact. In mindlessly abrogating TPP, Trump has cost America the sure-fire support of the Asian allies who are absolutely essential to have on board if a harder line with China is to be successfully pursued. In throwing in Obama’s winning hand in East Asia, Trump has been neglectful of alliances which are the only chance for the US to strategically prevail in the long term.