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Donald Trump’s Geopolitical Framework for Northeast Asia: Something Borrowed, Something New
Author: Mark Tokola
Region: Asia
Published June 24, 2020
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Does the forty-fifth president of the United States, Donald J. Trump, have a foreign policy, not least of all inclusive of the vital Northeast Asian region? The question is not flippant. Policy is usually thought of as a set of principles that guide action towards a desired outcome. Trump may, as he professes, act from instinct – reactively and transactionally rather than from an intent to implement an established policy. In the eyes of some of his supporters, this would be a virtue. They elected him expressly for the purpose of breaking with a traditional Washington policy machinery that they did not believe was serving their interests. However, Trump and his administration do assert and describe a distinct foreign policy. They even have a name for it, “principled realism.” Moreover, when Trump was running for the presidency in 2016, he announced his intention to “develop a new foreign policy direction for our country, one that replaces randomness with purpose, ideology with strategy, and chaos with peace.” He stated, “It’s time to shake the rust off America’s foreign policy.”

Understanding Trump’s foreign policy is not an abstract exercise. American voters will need to decide in November 2020 whether they want the policy to continue. Knowing what it is will help them make that decision. They will have to measure it against what Trump’s Democratic rival describes as his or her foreign policy. Foreign governments also seek to understand Trump’s actions, offers, and demands through the lens of what they understand his foreign policy to be. As the North Korean nuclear threat looms, China’s economy perches perilously on the edge of the precipice of the COVID-19 epidemic, and U.S. allies Japan and South Korea stand off in a history-inspired trade war, does Trump have a strategy to manage such regional challenges?

Trying to understand Trump’s foreign policy in any particular region, such as Northeast Asia, requires an understanding of his overall perspective. He sees the world as the entire world, not as a set of distinct regions. Trump’s foreign policy is based on principles which apply everywhere. The hallmarks of his approach have been his use of social media, the value he places on unpredictability, and his Art of the Deal (the title of his 1987 book, part memoir and part business advice) approach to international negotiations. These are tactics, however, not principles. This paper define the principles of the Trump foreign policy, examines whether they fit within a tradition of American foreign policy, tries to answer the question of whether they are an aberration or likely to continue in a post-Trump era, and outlines strategies other countries may be using to counter or accommodate Trump’s foreign policy, bringing the focus back to the challenges mounting in Northeast Asia and how Trump’s approach is impacting the region.

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