Trump’s First Year in Review

Speakers at USINDO event discuss the turbulent first year of the US president and its impact on Southeast Asia

By Christ Ponderosa
Wednesday, February 14, 2018

US President Donald Trump’s foreign policy toward Southeast Asia is characterized by a more bilateral approach, presenting a huge opportunity for improvement in US-Indonesia relations, said Aaron Connelly, an expert in US-Indonesia relations from the Lowy Institute, speaking at an event on the First year of the Trump Presidency: Assessment and Outlook for 2018, held by The United States-Indonesia Society (USINDO).

The February 7 forum, held at the Sequis Center Auditorium in Jakarta, reviewed US domestic and international policies implemented by the Trump administration in its first year and discussed the potential impact of the 2018 US midterm elections on East Asia.

Looking at US domestic politics, Steven Okun, a Democrat and the Founder and CEO of APAC Advisors, and a Senior Advisor at McLarty Associates, said he believed the coming midterm elections will result in gains for Democrats but he was not hopeful that bipartisan cooperation will occur in an increasingly polarized Washington.

Connelly contrasted Trump’s foreign policy toward East Asia (and Southeast Asia) with former president Barack Obama’s “Pivot” to Asia, and concluded that while there seems to be no major impact yet — which is perhaps attributable to the fact that Trump has not spent a great deal of time on the region — America under Trump is actually listening to individual Southeast Asian countries “a little bit more” than the Obama administration did.

Connelly also noted that given Trump’s unique position whereby he has no previous public sector experience and lacks deep knowledge of the region, his East Asia policy has been a struggle between himself — along with his America First advisors — and the people in charge of the different implementing institutions. He said that the latter have extraordinary influence over the policies implemented. 

Connelly argued that while Trump himself is far from resembling a mainstream Republican, his administration has been implementing conventional Republican policies, especially in terms of trade and foreign policy. Although it looks as if the administration is pursuing a harder line on trade policy, as witnessed by pulling out of the Trans Pacific Partnership early in his term, other actions, such as the tariff levy on solar panels and washing machines, are representative of the mainstream Republican trade agenda.

The same applies to foreign policy, evident in Trump’s policy toward North Korea and other autocratic states, where policies seem to diverge. At the level of heads of state, Trump looks comfortable with autocracy and violations of human rights, while at the implementation level the US is still pushing for democratic reforms. Toward North Korea, experts often claim that the era of Obama’s “strategic patience” is over. However, what is actually happening, Connely says, is a continuation of the same approach – US demands became increasingly high at first, but then softened in the past few months.

Connelly cautioned the audience against labeling every single action that Trump takes as “America First,” saying that the US has “good people” — who are not protectionists — at the cabinet and sub-cabinet level, and who are actually getting things done through conventional methods.

Singapore-based Okun said that the US midterm elections could result in a more even mix of Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate. He cautioned Trump critics – and there were many skeptics in the packed room – against being over confident. Despite early predictions of a debacle for the president’s party, it is “highly possible,” he said, that the Republicans would keep the House, because mid-term voters tend to be older and whiter, more conservative, and have more money than the average Democrat.

In the Senate, however, the road is tougher for the opposition party. Of the seats that are up for election, there are more Democratic seats than Republican. Regardless, Okun said it is likely that at least one house of the legislature will switch hands, largely because “Americans like a little bit of gridlock in our system.”

In response to a question, Okun said the chances of Trump being impeached by the Congress were remote.

Okun also discussed three main determining factors that helped Trump get elected. With a significant shift in the US social demographic from the “ideal” nuclear family portrayed in the 1950s hit TV show “Father Knows Best” toward the grab-bag of lifestyles portrayed in the contemporary TV show “Modern Family,” Americans today are much more diverse, more educated and live in a time when economic disparities are much greater than they were in the 1950s. He said that “the deplorables” – the term coined by losing candidate Hillary Clinton to disparage Trump’s supporters – who resist much of the change underway in the country played a big role in ensuring Trump’s ascendancy.

Okun also said that the trust crisis — caused by the government over-promising and under-delivering, and the rise of polarized and partisan news coverage — played a big role. He also explained for the largely Indonesian audience the long-term impact of the American system of gerrymandering electoral districts, which guarantees numerous geographically odd Congressional districts that favor incumbents. As a result of these many factors, he said, Republican and Democratic legislators increasingly cannot work together in Congress, which further reinforces the gridlock that has consistently formed along party lines.

He said such heightened polarization of the parties, with “the median Democrat almost always a liberal and the median Republican almost consistently a conservative,” is evident in the growing partisan approval gap of the president, which has increased from 30-50 percent about three decades ago, up to 70 percent for Obama, and 77 percent for Trump, meaning Trump’s supporters are nearly unfailing in their support for him, while his opponents are equally vehement in the other direction.

The fact that the Republicans control Congress has created hyper-energized bases of both Republican and Democratic supporters, leading to a virtually non-existent use of traditional checks and balances between the legislative and executive branches of the government. Frustration with this fact, Okun believes, will help fuel some change in the midterm elections.

Okun also identified areas with the biggest opportunities for bipartisanship cooperation, citing infrastructure and immigration, among others. Nevertheless, he was pessimistic that this would happen. In contrast to the common observation that presidential candidates tend to move to the center after taking office to appeal to a wider base, Trump has always stayed at the extreme, appealing to the roughly 38 percent of American voters who support him.

The US midterm elections may also affect US-Indonesia relations, especially with the upcoming Indonesian local and presidential elections. If Okun’s prediction materializes, it is likely that the US government will focus more on internal policy and less on foreign policy, at least temporarily.

Okun added that the US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership does not necessitate Chinese leadership on trade, especially as many countries have started to take on a more active role, citing Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as an example. Instead, with the US pulling out of the deal, the opportunity for other countries to take the lead has been created through the newly formed TPP11, which includes all the original member countries, minus the US. Okun encouraged the business community to support this.

Okun said he hoped that in the future, Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia would also join the multilateral TPP trading platform.


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