By Stephen Hoadley*
One year after one of the most surprising electoral victories in US political history, it is time to assess the performance of the victor: President Donald Trump.
Trump officially took office in late January 2017, but even before Inauguration Day he had made his aims clear: to erase all of his predecessor’s initiatives, notably the Affordable Health Care Acts (‘Obama-care’) in order to ‘make America great again’. Other signature aims were ‘drain the swamp’, ‘build a wall’, keep potential terrorist immigrants out, re-negotiate ‘unfair trade deals’, keep US firms from moving off-shore, and compel allies to pay their ‘fair share’ of the world defence burden.
More recently he has escalated his rhetoric and imposed economic sanctions in an attempt to compel North Korea to cease its nuclear weapons and missile development.
So far his batting average is zero.
Divisions in the US Congress, not only between the majority Republicans and the opposition Democrats, but also within the ranks of the ‘ruling’ Republicans, have prevented replacement of Obama-care. Indeed, Trump has not been able to pass a single major piece of legislation after nearly 300 days in office.
Famous for the phrase ‘you’re fired’, Trump has dumped thousands of senior officials and ambassadors, most spectacularly the Director of the FBI James Comey. But his ‘you’re hired’ voice is weak, as key posts remain unfilled. Of concern to New Zealand and other Asia-Pacific states, the key post of Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific remains vacant. Many of those whom Trump appointed proved unfit for the job and resigned, notably his National Security Advisor General Flynn, the Secretary for Health and Human Services, and two White House press chiefs.
Building the ‘wall’ has not begun because Trump has not been able to pass a budget for it, or to persuade Mexico to fund it. The courts have ruled Trump’s immigration initiatives unreasonable, discriminatory and unconstitutional, much to the relief of businesses and farmers who depend on immigrant labourers.
Two of Trump’s minor ‘achievements’ were withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and disavowal of the Paris Accord on climate change.
But the dynamics of trade and investment have proved irresistible and US businesses continue to invest abroad and US consumers continue to buy foreign products. Furthermore, US manufacturers depend on foreign raw materials, components, and technology, and resist the President’s attempt to impose import barriers. Thus the trade imbalance with China and other trade partners persists.
Trump’s travels to Europe induced him to acknowledge grudgingly the value of the North Atlantic Treaty and America’s European allies. Trump’s current travels to Asia have likewise revealed the realities of the delicate balance of power underpinned by America’s post-World War II benign hegemony. The ‘pivot to Asia’ initiated by President Obama continues uninterrupted in its traditional three manifestations – military deployment, economic engagement and diplomatic projection – managed by competent subordinate officials doing their best to avoid incurring the wrath of their Commander in Chief.
Trump has blamed his predecessor for being too soft on North Korea and has pressured China to stop that rogue regime’s nuclear weapons and missile programmes. But history reveals that the Kim dynasty decided in the 1950s to achieve a nuclear weapons capability, and no US president, or China president, has been able to stop that process. Trump will have to adapt to a nuclear-armed North Korea because the alternative, attacking North Korea, is unacceptably risky.
Meanwhile, the Pew International Survey recently found that favourable opinions of America have dropped from the 60% to the 40% range while trust in Trump has dropped to 22%.
Looking back, one struggles to find a single positive policy achievement by Trump. Instead, one sees disruptive tweets, intemperate epithets, and negative Executive Orders masquerading as policy. Looking ahead, one cannot see any change, but rather a continuing decline of US ‘soft power’, credibility, and leadership. Trump has failed ‘to make America great again’.
Meanwhile, President Xi of China is emerging as a contender for leadership in Asia. One is tempted to conclude that Trump has squandered America’s political capital and is leading his country from centre stage to the wings of international affairs.
*Stephen Hoadley is Associate Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Arts. This article first ran on Newsroom here and is used with permission.