What seemingly began as a cutting-edge “reality show” has rapidly morphed into an impending political nightmare, as Donald Trump cruises towards the White House. In state after state, the brash, tough-talking New York billionaire has routed his fellow Republican opponents, inflicting humiliating defeats on establishment candidates such as Jeb Bush.
Thanks to his spectacular performance during the initial stages of Republican Party primaries, Trump’s bid to become the party’s standard-bearer has assumed an air of inevitability. Dismal performance by mainstream candidates such as Marco Rubio, and the unwillingness of more moderate candidates to coalesce around an “alternative candidate”, has only buttressed Trump’s momentum.
Ted Cruz’ better-than-expected performance is unlikely to attract Republican establishment’s support. Branded as an ideologue, and disliked by most of his colleagues, the Texan Senator is seen as an even greater threat to the party. And compared with Trump, he is seen as a weaker candidate against the Democrats.
There is, of course, a slim chance that Trump will fall short of becoming the Republican nominee, and he is widely expected to lose any eventual race against either of the two Democratic Party candidates, Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton.
Nonetheless, Trump’s astonishing political success, so far, has engendered deep anxiety among the United States’ closest allies, including those in Asia, which has been at the centre of the Obama administration “rebalancing” foreign policy strategy.
Trump’s isolationist pronouncements have included praise for autocratic Russia, threats to impose heavy tariffs on Asian goods, and blatant anti-Muslim tirades which have shocked and alienated governments and hundreds of millions of people across Asia and beyond.
No wonder then that German newspaper Der Speigel has dubbed Trump as the world’s most dangerous man, while JK Rowling, the Harry Potter author, has described him as even worse than Voldemort. The US’ increasingly dysfunctional politics and the rise of polarising figures such as Trump are rapidly undermining the country’s leadership credentials in the region.
Soft power and hegemony
In his influential work, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, Harvard University academic Joseph Nye underscored the importance of the power of attraction in maintaining the US global leadership.
Acknowledging the inevitable economic and military catch-up of rival powers such as China, Nye argued that the future of US hegemony will largely depend on its ability to use persuasion rather than coercion in shaping the global order.
According to Nye, the appeal of Hollywood, the ideals of the US democracy, and the charisma of American leaders, among other attractive features of their power, will act as “force multipliers”, allowing Washington to maintain its strategic primacy even when it no longer enjoys full-spectrum dominance over its rivals. He called this the US “soft power”.
Nye’s hypothesis was put to test when the George W Bush administration’s unilateralism, brinkmanship, and brash diplomatic posturing severely undermined the US’ image and leadership across the world, including in places such as Europe and Australia, which came to embrace rising powers such as China.
This is precisely why President Barack Obama, whose “American dream” life story and meteoric rise to the White House captured the world’s imagination, dedicated much of his diplomatic capital to mending frayed ties with alienated allies in Europe and reaching out to major civilisations such as the Muslim world.
Under the Obama administration, The US’ global approval ratings bounced back, allowing Washington to more effectively deploy its “convening power”, most evident in its effective assembly of an international coalition vis-a-vis the Iranian nuclear issue.
With Asia emerging as the world’s new centre of economic gravity, the Obama administration engaged the region more than any of his predecessors. As part of the US’ Pivot to Asia strategy, President Obama chose the region as its first foreign trip, held “short sleeve” intimate summits with leaders of China and Southeast Asia, and pushed for a pan-regional Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, among many other initiatives.
Amid China’s rising territorial assertiveness in adjacent waters, the Obama administration has steadily augmented the US military presence in the region, while soliciting diplomatic and military support from allies and partners across the region. But its soft power is in danger.
Trump’s abhorrent call for total ban on entry of Muslims, amid growing public anxiety after the San Bernardino terror attacks, not only provoked international outrage vis-a-vis the New York billionaire, but has also cast a dark shadow on the US’ democratic pedigree.
Traditionally, Asian governments have been careful not to be seen as interfering in the US domestic politics. But Trump’s venomous rhetoric proved just too much to bear, especially for multicultural Southeast Asian countries, which have spent decades on fostering intercommunal harmony.
Nur Jazlan Mohamed, deputy home minister of Muslim-majority Malaysia, bluntly characterised Trump as a symptom of an emerging wave of xenophobia in the US: “[Trump’s] proposal reflects the thinking of many people in America, and this is worrying.”
Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, has also taken notice. A top Indonesian politician, Setya Novanto, was placed under investigation for violation of ethics laws when he was seen appearingat one of Trump’s campaign events.
Adhering to a 19th century doctrine of US foreign policy, Trump has called for abandonment of free trade and extraction of imperial “tribute” from allies such as South Korea, while praising China’s massive reclamation activities in adjacent waters as a reflection of strategic acumen and lashing out at major allies such as Japan as free-riders.
Trump and his legions of supporters have made a mockery of US claims to exceptionalism and global leadership. And if Trump wins the presidential race, don’t be surprised if some US allies and friends start defecting to revisionist powers such as China, whose leaders would suddenly look less erratic and more reliable than US.
Richard Javad Heydarian is a specialist in Asian geopolitical/economic affairs and author of Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China, and the Struggle for Western Pacific
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.