Trump’s 100 days… and still going wrong?

22 April 2017
As appeared in The Star Online

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Photo Credit: Bloomberg

PRESIDENT Donald Trump exploded from the blocks after his inauguration on Jan 20, but soon found out he was not in a sprint but in a long-distance race.

His rapid fire of orders to fulfil promises he made for his first 100 days were not as easy to shoot as he thought.

Most notable, of course, were the executive orders on entry into the United States, immigrants and refugees. The way these orders were shot down was one of the most heartening evidences that the liberal system in America was alive and well – not just the laws, but the people willing to fight for others – and that the Trump avalanche could not crush it.

Trump has promised to come roaring back, but not yet. Meanwhile he has moved to the H-1B visa, signing just this week the “Buy American, Hire American” executive order in Wisconsin (where his stunning victory was part of the Rust Belt sweep that propelled him to the White House).

This order could curb the hiring of foreign technical workers and will get government agencies to buy more domestically produced products – all part of his promise to protect American jobs and wages. So there still is this anti-foreign binge, if not quite fulfilled on the alleged security front at least on the economic front, misplaced though it may be to most rational people.

For countries outside America, the main concern with the Trump presidency is his threat to attack the open global trading system, which he claims has been unfair to the United States. His performance on this within these 100 days is mixed and uncertain.

The big overhang was a possible trade war between the United States and China. Though not quite averted, it does not look as if China is going to be slapped with a tariff of 45% or declared a currency manipulator in Trump’s first 100 days, or perhaps even the next.

This was a lightning campaign promise, over which wiser counsel has prevailed. The former was hyperbole of the highest order, and the latter plainly not true.

This does not mean, however, that there is no prospect of trade conflict with China or that the Trump administration has embraced free trade. It is just that some strategy or policy is forming.

Trump’s summit meeting with Xi Jinping was just a first touch. There may even be trade-offs in the offing: Trump’s much vaunted “art of the deal”, normally called linkage politics.

This mixed and uncertain future is evident in a number of instances. The US Trade Representative office, in its report to Congress in March (while still without its head confirmed), left the part on China unfilled and referred the reader to a previous report under the Obama administration in 2016 which was just a factual rendition of China’s track record that year against its World Trade Organisation (WTO) obligations.

The other parts of the March report – the first on trade policy under the Trump administration – were clear but not trenchant on “America First” and on an emphasis on bilateral rather than multilateral trade arrangements. There were ominous references, however, to the United States not being bound by WTO rulings.

At the G-20 finance ministers meeting in Hamburg, US Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin insisted there should be no reference in the joint communique to “avoid all forms of protectionism”, which had been an allusion after all G-20 meetings. It would be interesting to see what line Trump would take at the G-20 summit in July, also to be held in Hamburg.

And there is now this notorious list of 16 countries – Malaysia included – with whom the United States has a chronic trade deficit problem, as if the Sword of Damocles hangs over their heads.

Yet vice-president Mike Pence was this week in Indonesia to reassure Asia on US commitment to its friends and allies in the region. Damage to trade-dependent economies cannot be good commitment, which even a Trump administration must realise.

Just to mix it up even more, the vice-president announced that Trump would be attending the Apec and Asean summits in November, something countries in the region were hopeful for but absolutely not sure about.

To boot, this message was conveyed after Mike Pence visited the Asean secretariat in Jakarta, when he further stated the Trump administration would work with Asean on security and freedom of trade in the South China Sea. While there is uncertainty, there are also surprises, not always unpleasant.

The Mike Pence Asia trip was primarily intended to reassure South Korea and Japan, and to warn North Korea which was making everyone excitable with its nuclear weapon adventurism. There is, however, a correlation between economic capacity and defence capability of its allies, which the Trump administration perhaps is beginning to realise. Enfeebling with trade sanctions is not the best way to boost their confidence or capability in defence.

The assurance, it would seem, would come from the Trump administration’s willingness to shoot its way out of the troubles it may face, such as those threatened by North Korea.

This is quite dubious foreign policy strategy, as there are a limited number of bush fires that can be fought, especially as some can become overwhelming conflagrations.

The language Mike Pence has been using, like his boss through Twitter rather than based on any strategic doctrine, has been: “Choice today the same as ages past. Security through strength or an uncertain future of weakness and faltering… (America) will always seek peace but under president Trump, the shield stands guard and the sword stands ready.”

No doubt the 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles that hit a Syrian airbase in response to the Assad regime’s callous chemical attack on innocents, is the pointed reference, but surely not the armada that did not appear around North Korea.

Deterrence needs to be credible, absolutely, but easier in some situations, like Syria, and complicated in North Korea where the China factor has to be weighed more carefully than the faraway Russian Syrian interest.

The point is there is a greater complexity in international relations than a one-size-fits-all approach. There is merit in the Trump argument that there has been, in US foreign policy, a perfectionist strategic paralysis. But there is also proof that threat of an all-out action is not sustainable in all situations.

What is observable in the past almost 100 days of the Trump administration is a retreat from quite a number of the US president’s outlandish assertions and policy threats – like blanking out Nato – which have come out more as movement sideways, compensated by direct action which even has some American public intellectuals cooing.

There is still uncertainty. There will be more surprises. But will the Trump new normal be more normal than new?

Tan Sri Dr Munir Majid, chairman of Bank Muamalat and visiting senior fellow at LSE Ideas (Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy), is also chairman of CIMB Asean Research Institute.