Donald Trump’s Domestic and Foreign Policies In His Presidency

By Ding Yuanhong

Donald Trump has been elected as President of the United States against the major backdrop of serious social divisions in the United States. As an “outsider” of the US political system, he won the presidential election in an unconventional way. His election has further ripped apart the United States. From winning election victory to taking office, he went through the most unsmooth transition period in the US history. Even when his victory has become solidly irreversible, there still have been persistent doubts, criticisms and accusations on him. All these show that Donald Trump’s presidency will not be smooth.  

Currently, public opinions both inside and outside the United States mainly label Donald Trump’s domestic and foreign policies as “isolationism”, “trade protectionism” and “populism”. However, these are not accurate. Trump has not abandoned the strategy of maintaining America’s global dominance, so how can one say that he pursues isolationism? Dr. Henry Kissinger said satirically that this was just a romantic imagination of some people who know little about foreign policies. The United States has all along followed trade protectionism. Before leaving office, Barack Obama broke his promise publicly and refused to recognize China as a market economy. Isn’t it a manifestation of trade protectionism? Trade protectionism is not a unique feature of Trump’s policies. He won the presidential election by taking advantage of American people’s dissatisfaction with political elites, but as a member of monopoly capitalists in the United States, he is bound to serve the fundamental interest of his country, or to be more accurate, the interest of the Wall Street. How could he possibly be a “populist” that stands for the interests of the ordinary people? Trump boasts that he follows the idea of “America first”. But according to the views of Marxism, his governing philosophy is actually deeply rooted in extreme national egotism.
Various parties inside and outside the United States have concerns and criticism mainly on Donald Trump’s uncertainty during his presidency. This may have some point, but the direction of his domestic and foreign policies in his presidency is not totally unpredictable because of the following reasons: 

The United States is still the most powerful country in the world in terms of its aggregate national strength. To fully maintain its global dominance has been determined by its national interests. It is the foundation for any US administration to formulate its policies, including that of Donald Trump. Actually, the “America first” concept raised by Donald Trump is in essence the same as what Barack Obama claimed that the United States will never be second to any other country. Both are deeply rooted in the American exceptionalism. Their difference lies in the strategic layout, tactics and implementation methods to achieve the strategic goal of maintaining America’s global dominance. 

Donald Trump won the presidential election as a Republican candidate, so his domestic and foreign policies during his presidency will surely reflect the right-wing conservative tradition of the Republican Party. When he was young, he admired very much President Ronald Reagan. The slogans he advocated in his campaign such as “Make America Great Again” and “Peace Through Strength” are what Reagan used when running for presidency. In his telephone conversation with Prime Minister Theresa May of the United Kingdom after winning the election, Donald Trump emphasized that he wanted to rebuild the close relationship like the one between President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher. One can easily see the impact of Reagan’s presidency from what Donald Trump said and did before and after his election victory. 

Donald Trump took presidency from President Obama, a Democrat who was in the White House for eight years. In line with the past practice that presidency rotates between Republicans and Democrats, Donald Trump will adopt policies opposite to those of Barack Obama. It is said that he will abolish 70% of acts and orders formulated during the Obama presidency, the first of which will be the Obamacare and the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP). Within the short period of time before leaving office, Obama set up in an unusual way many traps in both domestic and foreign policies to preserve his own legacy and at the same time, build stumbling blocks for the Trump presidency.

Based on the words and actions of Donald Trump before and after the presidential election and his two books, Time to Get Tough: Make American Great Again published in 2011 and Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again in 2015, after Donald Trump took office, the following major changes will take place to the US domestic and foreign policies in comparison to those during the Obama presidency: 

First, the pressing priority and the biggest challenge for the Trump presidency is to assuage the general public’s discontent with the existing system and political elites and bridge the serious divisions in American society as reflected in the presidential election. In the later days of the his administration, Barack Obama focused too much of his energy on the external issues for maintaining America’s global dominance while failing to well manage the economy at home. As a result, the Democrats lost the presidential election. Donald Trump has drawn lessons from it and started from reinvigorating the US manufacturing sector. On his agenda, he will focus on domestic issues first and then external ones and on domestic economy first and then external geopolitics. 

To boost the US economy and create more jobs, Donald Trump is concentrating on the manufacturing sector. Before taking office, he compelled companies in the real economy to stay in or return to the United States through the leverage of taxation. What he intends to achieve is to revitalize the real economy, expand infrastructure building, grow innovation-driven sectors and reverse the reality of sluggish economic development and loss of job opportunities. Donald Trump’s measures may pay off in the short term, but they may also lead to a more severe fiscal deficit and heavier debts, which will make it more difficult for the US economy to realize sustainable growth and add more political uncertainties. 

Second, the social inequality that has threatened the political and economic situation in the United States is a result of inherent contradictions of monopoly capitalism. Globalization based on the core idea of neoliberalism which the United States has championed has resulted in big social divisions caused by inequality. In his farewell speech in Europe, Barack Obama warned the Western countries that the path to globalization must be redressed when different countries face the same challenge, i.e., to work together to cope with social inequality. What Donald Trump wants to do is not to reverse or go against globalization. Instead, he just tries to redress the negative impact brought by globalization on the United States, He believes that the United States has been ripped off in trade negotiations, therefore after taking office, he will not only drop the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and try to revise multilateral trading agreements based on globalization such as NAFTA, but also show less interest in various international efforts over the years based on the idea of global governance such as the UN agreements on climate change. He may even refuse to honor the commitments that the United States has undertaken. 

Third, all the US administrations have pursed power diplomacy, and it is more the case as the United States has become the only superpower. Donald Trump has raised the concept of winning through power. He believes that foreign policies must be supported by strong military power, the United States should use force or threaten to use force on issues concerning its national interest. Only when the absolute military advantage of the United States is shown to all other countries, will they be deterred. 

Donald Trump is not happy with the 2017 national defense budget of US$611 billion passed by the Obama administration and claimed that after taking office, he would immediately abolish the defense budget cuts, substantially increase defense spending and upgrade military equipment to deal with global threats that his country faces. It is said that for the US Navy only, its vessels will be increased from 274 to 350. This decision has been well received by the Pentagon and military companies who believe that the age of prosperity for military industry  has arrived. As Donald Trump has put in place a rarely-seen administration with multiple officials from the military, the impact of such developments for world peace is a major issue that deserves close attention. 

Fourth, the network of military alliances in various parts of the world that the United States has built after World War II have been the major foothold for the US global dominance. During his presidency, Donald Trump will maintain this network to preserve the dominant position of the United States globally. However, he will also make adjustments as he is a follower of the national egotism: first, following the principle of equal-value exchange, the US allies must pay more “protection fees” in exchange for security protection from America; second, on issues that do not concern the core national interests of the US such as the crisis in Ukraine, the United States will no longer offer funds or forces.  

The relations between the United States and its allies will undergo major changes after Donald Trump took office. Trump’s election victory has caught the US allies off guard as they miscalculated the situation and did not expect that he would win. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe even hurried to New York to “pay tribute to”Donald Trump, who had not been sworn in yet, making a farce in the diplomatic history. 

Fifth, as the US-Russia relations dropped to its lowest level since the end of the Cold War, Donald Trump kept showing friendly gestures to Vladimir Putin before and after his election victory and he chose Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil who has been quite close to Putin, to take the important position of State Secretary. Recently, Trump made public Putin’s letter to him and issued a statement that said it was quite right for Putin to point out in his letter that Russia-US relations are still the major factor for ensuring stability and security in the modern world. He hoped that the two countries would put these ideas into action rather than look for other ways. All these show that in his presidency, Donald Trump will put the improvement of US-Russia relations high on his agenda.    

Two major reasons are behind Trump’s decision to get close to Russia despite strong anti-Russia sentiments within the Republican Party. First, he has taken advice from well-known figures such as Dr. Henry Kissinger on alleviating the tension between the United States and Russia to reverse its disadvantageous position in the triangle relations involving also China and Russia, where during the Obama administration, the United States had to deal with both the rise of China and its worsening ties with Russia. Second, he believes that the major threat to the US hegemony no longer comes from Russia, but from China. On 24 December 2016, Deputy National Security Adviser Benjamin Rhodes told journalists that Russia posed only short-term threats to the international order and stability, while from the long-term perspective, China would be a country much more powerful than Russia, and for the United States, it would be a stronger competitor than Russia. This is in line with Trump’s view in his book that for the United States, China is a major rival in economic competition and a potential enemy in the military field. 

The United States and Russia have different strategic goals, so their bilateral relations can hardly improve in a fundamental way. China-Russia strategic partnership, on the other hand, serves the interests of both sides and will not be shaken by the change of the US policy towards Russia. However, it still deserves high attention that Trump has taken it as a strategic move to drive a wedge in Russia-China relations. 

Sixth, Donald Trump had a telephone conversation with Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen and called her“President”, breaking the recognized practice over 30-plus years since China-US diplomatic ties were established. His public questioning of the one-China principle is not just a reckless or ignorant personal move. Instead, it is a deliberate strategic attempt. Such a move is not only designed to gain more in its trade negotiation with China, taking the Taiwan question as a bargaining chip. It is all the more an attempt to unshackle the constraint on the United States by the one-China principle under the disguise of showing a posture of waging a trade war with China. A telling example is that at the end of last year, the US congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017, which violated the US commitment of having no official exchanges with Taiwan and clearly stated that military exchanges with Taiwan by officials above the assistant defense secretary level would be allowed. 

Apart from that, Trump appointed Peter Navarro, who the US media said is the most hawkish of all and who stands for being tough on China and arming Taiwan, as Chairman of the National Trade Council of the White House. It is said that the telephone call between Trump and Tsai was orchestrated on Navarro’s suggestion. These moves before Trump took office indicate that he intends to show toughness on China and make greater efforts to work with Russia in an attempt to divide China and Russia and reverse the strategically passive position of the United States caught between China and Russia. 

Another reason for Trump to take the above-mentioned moves while knowing that they would anger China is that within the Republican Party, there has always been a strong anti-communist and anti-China force which never recognizes the one-China principle. They were very dissatisfied with Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 and his agreement with China on normalizing US-China relations in line with the one-China principle. They used the Watergate incident to cooperate with Democratic members of the Congress and forced Nixon to resign, threatening to impeach him otherwise. As a result, Nixon’s commitment made to China on establishing diplomatic ties could not materialize. Shortly after the Carter administration officially established diplomatic ties with China on the basis of one-China principle in 1978, Reagan in 1980 proposed in his campaign as a Republican presidential candidate that he would restore America’s diplomatic ties with Taiwan if he was elected. Though due to the double pressure from China’s firm position and the aggravation of US-Soviet competition for hegemony, Reagan could not honor his campaign pledge, he made six assurances to Taiwan when reaching with China the Joint Communiqué on 17 August, 1982. The essence of these assurances is to support Taiwan in its independence attempt. In Trump’s campaign platform as a Republican presidential candidate, he made no mention of the three Sino-US joint communiqués. Instead, he for the first time put the six assurances in his campaign platform. Therefore, it is by no means accidental for Trump to behave as he did on his China policy before taking office. Though Trump’s attempt to go beyond the one-China policy cannot succeed as it has become an international consensus, he will still use the Taiwan question to create trouble for China-US relations with the help of the DPP government of Taiwan. For this, high alert is necessary and preparations must be made.  

Seventh, Donald Trump’s Middle East policy will have major adjustments after he took office. One is the Iranian nuclear issue and the other is the Palestine-Israel relations. Republican members of the Congress have long been discontent with the conclusion of the relevant agreement on the nuclear issue between the Obama administration and Iran, which have offended the US allies in the Middle East such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. Recently, pushed by Republicans, the Senate and the House of Representatives decided to extend the sanction against Iran, and though Obama did not agree with it, he did not veto it either. So it might not be just bluffing for Trump to claim that he would overturn the agreement. Though it is not easy to abolish the agreement on the Iranian nuclear issue since it has been reached between the six countries and Iran, the United States, as a superpower, is fully capable of thwarting the smooth implementation of the agreement.  

Compared with the agreement on the Iranian nuclear issue, Trump’s attempt to change the two-state solution to the Palestine-Israel issue supported by the Obama administration will lead to more serious repercussions in the Middle East. He first had a cordial telephone conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during which he emphasized that he would fully strengthen US-Israel cooperation. Then he appointed David Friedman, a pro-Jewish lawyer who stands for Israel’s expansion of settlements in the West Bank and relocation of Israeli capital to Jerusalem, as the US Ambassador to Israel. The Obama administration, as a check on Israel, voted in abstention on the resolution of the UN Security Council demanding Israel stop its settlements construction in the West Bank. As a result, for the very first time since 1979, a UN Security Council resolution condemning the Israel’s settlement plan was adopted. This angered Israel massively, and the Israeli prime minister denounced the resolution as a shameful anti-semitist attempt manipulated by the Obama administration from behind and Israel decided to retaliate. Donald Trump asked Israel to hold on firmly and wait for him to take office. This episode indicated that during his presidency, Trump is bound to adjust the US policy towards the Middle East which will drag the region into more serious chaos and will also seriously impact the situation in Europe and worldwide. 

Eighth, the Ukraine crisis, the civil war in Syria and the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula that have caught attention worldwide are not at the top of Trump’s agenda. He refused to take the call from Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko and firmly believes that Islamic State (IS) is the biggest threat to the United States. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a bad guy, but IS is even worse. He claimed that the right way to fight IS is to work with relevant parties such as Russia and that it is not easy for Kim Jong-un, as a young man, to run the DPRK and he would be ready to talk face-to-face with Kim on the Korean nuclear issue. As the United States, ROK and Japan are clamoring that the DPRK’s possession of nuclear weapons and development of missiles pose grave threats, Donald Trump indicated that the DPRK’s possession of nuclear missiles capable of reaching the United States won’t happen. All these show that Trump does not take these hot-spot issues as urgent ones as the Obama administration did. From his egotist perspective, he does not want to spend money or energy on these issues that do not concern the core interests of the United States. He won’t take chestnuts out of fire for others, and would rather shift these problems to others. It seems that he is planning to leave the burden of Ukraine to the EU, the Syrian issue to countries like Russia and Turkey and the Korean nuclear issue to China. In this way, no matter how the situation may develop, the United States will well protect its own interests and have ample room for maneuvering.

Given the above analysis, it can be concluded that during Donald Trump’s presidency, the relations between the United States and other parts of the world will undergo major changes. The domestic situation in the country will be hardly stable because of various interwoven problems. The international political, economic and financial situations will remain in turmoil as well. At this special historical moment, China needs all the more to stay firmly committed to its own path with the awareness of preventing possible risks and maintaining strategic composure. On safeguarding its core national interests, China must firmly implement what President Xi Jinping pointed out at the democratic discussion in the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee that China should be courageous enough to meet challenges head-on and not yield to any difficulties and never trade principles for benefits or swallow bitter fruits that undermine the fundamental interests of the Chinese nation under any pressure. 

Ding Yuanhong is Former Head of Chinese Mission to the European Union.