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KEI Spotlight

[Op-Ed] Trump isn't unpredictable

March 13, 2024

This article was published in The Korea Times on March 13, 2024.

With Donald Trump set to be the Republican presidential nominee after a string of primary wins on March 5, South Korea and other U.S. allies will be increasingly focused on the implications of a potential second Trump presidency for global stability and economic prosperity. A commonly expressed concern is that a restored Trump presidency would be unpredictable. In reality, Trump’s policies are relatively clear. The distinctions in Trump’s foreign and economic policies are in their divergence from traditional U.S. policy, not in their inherent unpredictability.

Donald Trump has intentionally cultivated his supposed unpredictability as a tool of policy. In an April 2016 foreign policy speech, Trump criticized traditional U.S. foreign policy, stating that the United States “must as a nation be more unpredictable … We are totally predictable. We tell everything … We have to be unpredictable, and we have to be unpredictable starting now.”

What gives Trump an air of unpredictability is not his actions, but rather his willingness to say anything and to push established boundaries. He has no compunction about calling a world leader a name one day and then praising them the next. Trump’s dealings with North Korea highlight this, as they swung from describing Kim Jong-un as a “maniac” to, in a matter of months, referring to Kim as “very honorable.” But outside the Sturm und Drang of his words, there are key characteristics that drive Trump’s actions.

While U.S. presidents have long viewed America’s allies as a benefit for U.S. security and sought to deepen ties, Trump views U.S. allies as a financial burden — a view that dates back to the 1980s. His recent comment that he would encourage Russia “to do whatever the hell they want” toNATO allies that haven’t met their defense spending commitment may have been shocking but is fundamentally no different from his 2016 response when asked if he would come to a NATO state’s defense if Russia attacked. In that instance, Trump said, “If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes.”

South Korea’s own experience with the last set of cost-sharing negotiations further reflects Trump’s view that allies are freeloaders who should pay more. What is less clear is whether he would carry through with his threats to walk away from alliance commitments.

If Trump views allies as a burden, he has an un-American fondness for authoritarian leaders. In addition to Trump’s praise of Kim Jong-un, he has described Putin’s actions and invasion of Ukraine as “genius” and “savvy.” He has called Xi Jinping a “brilliant guy,” Viktor Orban “fantastic,” and referred to Hezbollah as “very smart” when discussing the terrorist group’s actions after Hamas’ attack on Israel.

Given Trump’s admiration for dictators, it is not surprising that he agreed to Kim Jong-un’s request that military exercises be canceled or said that he trusted Putin’s expressed views more than those of the U.S. intelligence agencies. No prior U.S. president would have engaged in this behavior, but it is completely in line with Trump’s worldview.

Trump’s opinions on trade have also been known since the 1980s. Then, he noted that “America is being ripped off. We’re a debtor nation, and we have to tax, we have to tariff, we have to protect this country.” In his first term, Trump pushed this agenda by demanding the Korea-United States Free Trade Agreement and North American Free Trade Agreement be renegotiated. He used national security provisions in U.S. law to put tariffs on steel, aluminum and consumer goods such as washing machines. The most significant use of tariffs followed the Section 301 investigation into China, which resulted in a wide range of tariffs on Chinese goods.

Both of Donald Trump’s core beliefs could raise issues for the alliance. Despite the notion that two conservative leaders would be in alignment on North Korea, Trump’s personal relationship with Kim Jong-un could create tensions in the relationship. So could South Korea’s level of financial support for U.S. troops, even if the Special Measures Agreement is extended prior to Trump’s possible return to office. On trade, the fact that the U.S. trade deficit with South Korea is now almost twice as large as when Trump first came to office could also be a flashpoint.

When Trump was elected in 2016, he was new to the political scene, and there was reason to assume that, similar to prior U.S. presidents, he would govern differently in office than he had campaigned. After witnessing his four years in office and a post-presidency, we now know how Trump acts as a leader. It is not that he is unpredictable, as many of his core tenets have remained the same over decades, but rather that he represents a radically different view of America and its role in the world than has existed since the end of the Second World War. This is the Trump administration for which South Korea and U.S. allies need to prepare.