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The age of uncertainty is upon us, and we’d better get used to it

It is unclear how a Trump presidency will shape foreign policy. Reuters/Lucas Jackson

Peter Varghese, former head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, now chancellor of the University of Queensland had a simple message for policymakers anxious about the arrival in the White House of a man whose impulses are both crude and opaque.

Wait and see.

Speaking at the Australian Institute for International Affairs national conference in Canberra Varghese advanced these questions.

Mr Trump appears to be a bundle of strong instincts but what we do not yet know is if he is a man or strong policy views which, taken together, form a coherent view of America’s place in the world. And if he is such a man, how open will he be in his office to changing his view?

There is a lot that hangs off the answers to these two questions.

That might be regarded as an understatement.

For the reality is that no American president in recent memory – including the former Texas governor George W. Bush - has come to the world’s most challenging job less prepared, and less constrained by what might be described as a coherent world view.

Insofar as his policy impulses can be discerned, Trump represents an amalgam of prejudices loosely conjoined by a campaign slogan to “make America great again”.

What this actually implies is unclear beyond an amorphous desire to reassert American hegemony at home and abroad.

Trump wants to restore America’s manufacturing base shredded by inexorable technological change and the insistent forces of globalisation.

Whatever the president-elect might have pledged to do about these challenges, his policy prescriptions – and interventions in the market – are unlikely to reverse a long-term trend except at considerable cost to a global trading system and America’s well-being.

His actions in persuading the Carrier air-conditioning company to shelve plans to move its Indiana factory offshore may have been admirable in some respects, but they hardly amount to a sustainable policy across the board given established globalising trends that will prove difficult – if not impossible – to resist.

Likewise his foreign policy prescriptions, as far as they can be judged by his bellicose remarks on the campaign trail, reflect raw prejudices about America’s place in the world, and threats to its leadership.

“Bombing the shit’’ out of ISIS might play well in Peoria, but it hardly represents a coherent strategy to rid the world of the scourge of Islamic terrorism.

Nor, it might be said, does his denigration of the Iran nuclear deal – without providing a reasonable alternative – engender confidence in the ability of a Trump administration to finesse the foreign policy challenge of the moment, namely how to contain the risks of nuclear proliferation in the world’s most unstable region.

Much will depend on the team Trump surrounds himself with, but early indications in the national security space are cause for concern.

Designated national security adviser Michael Flynn’s talk of a "religious war” against militant Islam revives worries about the perils of American interventionism, leavened by Trump’s own reservations about America acting as the world’s policeman.

The president elect’s characterisation of the relationship he might develop with Russia’s Vladimir Putin as a man he could do business with might sound good in theory, but in practice managing relations with Moscow will be one of the new administration’s significant challenges.

Washington and Moscow may, on the face of it, share common objectives in the fight against ISIS, but these aims diverge on the issue of preserving Syria’s Bashar al-Assad in power backed by Russian and Iranian military engagement.

Not least of the Obama administration’s foreign policy mistakes has been to allow circumstances to arise that have enabled Russia and Iran to implant themselves in Syria as backer of a regime that has killed, tortured and maimed tens of thousands of its citizens. In the process it has also contributed to the further unravelling of the Middle East.

Where this might end is anyone’s guess, but it is hard to believe the various proxy wars between Sunnis and Shiites across the region will conclude well.

ISIS may be driven from its redoubts in Syria and Iraq, but it will remain a stabilising force for years to come, adding to pressures that would further splinter the region.

Writing for the Project Syndicate, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations shares the Varghese view that judgement should be reserved about a Trump administration’s foreign policy impulses.

“Campaigning and governing are two very different activities, there is no reason to assume that how Trump conducted the former will dictate how he approaches the latter,” Haass writes.

This is true, but it is also the case that uncertainties about America’s trajectory under Trump come at a particularly awkward moment in post-Cold War history, when US power and influence is receding relative to other players, notably China.

From an Australian perspective, there is no more critical issue than how a new Trump administration stakes out its territory in its dealings with China. Any actions that demand of Canberra a binary choice between Beijing and Washington would be detrimental to our interests.

Managing this aspect of Australian foreign policy while trying to ensure that the US remains engaged constructively in the Asia-Pacific will represent a significant challenge for policymakers at a moment when Beijing is continuing to probe the limits of its newfound power and influence.

In his Project Syndicate essay Haass makes the good point that in a new era the “balance between global order and disorder will be determined not just by US actions, but also and increasingly by what others long aligned with America are prepared to do.’’

If there was a discernible theme in Trump’s various streams of consciousness during the campaign, it was that America’s allies would need to make larger contributions to regional and global security.

How this will pan out is unclear, and made more so by contradictory strands that suggest an isolationist tendency on one hand, and promises to make America militarily powerful again on the other with massive increases in military expenditure.

Shares in a military industrial complex have soared accordingly.

What can be said with some conviction is that the world is likely in for a prolonged period of uncertainty during which a Trump administration seeks to get its bearings in both a fractured and fractious global environment.

And one, it must be said, that can’t be separated from economic uncertainties more or less across the board.

No longer can a China growth story be taken for granted, nor can a continued global expansion. It would not take much to throw a fragile global the economy off course, and even into a tailspin.

Confidence is extremely fragile, notwithstanding a rally in equities on American and other markets. This sort of relief – rather than confidence – will be buffeted if, as seems inevitable, the new administration displays unsteadiness in its early days.

Australia, as Varghese points out, is particularly vulnerable because of its dependence on China which accounted for 27 percent of our exports in 2015 . Spreading risk in these circumstances would seem to be a priority.

Welcome to the new age of uncertainty.

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