Trump and the U.S.-ROK alliance
As I write this column it is still not certain who will win the March 15 Republican primaries in the delegate-rich states of Florida and Ohio. If billionaire TV reality show star Donald Trump wins both states, he is almost certain to become the Republican candidate for President. If Florida Senator Marco Rubio can win his home state and Ohio Governor John Kasich can win his home state, then Trump’s bubble may begin to deflate in subsequent primaries and he may be stopped at a contested Republican Party Convention in July. Either way, Trump will remain the most likely Republican candidate with the so-called “betting markets” giving him a 20-30 percent chance of actually winning the Presidency.
The prospect of a Trump nomination is deeply disturbing to the overwhelming majority of Republican and conservative foreign policy experts (not to mention Democrats) and so far is opposed by about half of the Republican rank-and-file, despite Trump’s ability to win pluralities in most primaries thus far. He has no recognized foreign policy advisors. There are real questions about whether he has even studied foreign policy.
His views are clearly well outside the mainstream internationalism of Republican and Democratic candidates and administrations since the 1930s. And yet Trump is winning primaries and could ultimate win the Presidency, even if the odds are against him. This is increasingly coming as a shock to America’s closest friends abroad.
To contemplate what a Trump administration would mean for the U.S.-Korea alliance, it is first necessary to understand why his rhetoric is attracting enough support for him to keep winning primaries. There are basically three reasons.
First, and most commonly referenced, is frustration with the economy. Globalization is having this impact in every major country, including Korea. Polls show that for the first time more Americans believe they will not be better off than their parents.
To the supporters of Trump on the right (indeed, for all conservatives), expanded government is the cause of the problem — and especially “Obamacare” (the administration’s expansion of government-mandated health care coverage). The fact that the left and right are gridlocked over what to do to help increase wages has only increased the exasperation of voters. For many, Trump offers a deceptively simple and decisive style of leadership, no matter what he actually says he would do in terms of policy.
The second cause of Trumpism is frustration with President Obama’s seemingly cerebral, indecisive, and — in the view of half the public in polls —weak foreign policy leadership. Trump may not know much about how the world works, but many voters believe that he will be tough with foreigners, never mind the details or the legality of his ideas.
The third factor is residual nativism and even racism in American politics. Trump’s statements are not as openly prejudiced as earlier cases and it would not be fair to say that all — or even a majority — of his supporters are racists or nativists. Nevertheless, his proposals to block Muslim integration and expel 11 million illegal aliens have resonated with voters (or at least not repelled voters) in a way that suggest America has not overcome its darker history of discrimination.
So would this combination of protectionism, nativism and bluster damage the U.S.-ROK alliance? It is hard to see how America’s brand is not already suffering internationally. Moreover, anti-establishment Presidents have usually made a hash of foreign policy in their first year or two. And yet, the mainstream internationalist views have always prevailed.
In that sense, the U.S.-ROK alliance is very well weather-proofed to withstand whatever political storm might come. There is strong bipartisan support for the U.S.-ROK alliance in Congress, as well as in state and local governments. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey of American foreign policy views last October showed the highest support for the U.S.-ROK alliance and defending South Korea ever. Meanwhile, polls by Pew show that two thirds of Americans support free trade and a majority support TPP. Finally, the influence of Korean-Americans has never been more welcomed or important in American domestic politics.
This is a disconcerting and uncertain time in American presidential politics. But institutions, the national interest, and the public’s view of the world (as opposed to the candidate’s) should never be overlooked.
*The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.