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Debating the Merits and Demerits of Trump’s Foreign Policy Unpredictability 

29 Apr 2024
By Professor Stephen Nagy and Dr Satoru Nagao
President Donald J. Trump shakes hands with Chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea Kim Jong Un Sunday, June 30, 2019, as the two leaders meet at the Korean Demilitarized Zone. Source: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead /

Democratic states have a lot to consider with the prospect of a potential second Trump administration in their calculations for foreign and strategic relations. The Biden administration’s orthodox foreign policy is stability focused, but Trump’s unpredictability may be more useful for dealing with China and Russia. 

At a recent event on Japan-India relations hosted by O.P. Jindal Global University in Tokyo much of the discussion rested on how different countries view the Biden and the Trump administrations from a foreign policy perspective. Expert opinions were split. For instance, the strengths of Biden administration’s systematic, sequential, and allies-first approach to managing US-China relations as well as defending Ukraine against Russia’s illegal invasion are implicitly understood. Without Biden’s decade long and sustained experience with NATO, Europe, and Atlantic-centered relations it would have been difficult to conceive the US of being able to bring together Europe in a united way along with Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand to push back against and resist the biggest land war since World War II.

Today, thanks to the Biden administration’s diplomacy, NATO has expanded its European membership, and the NATO Asia-Pacific 4 (AP4) are working together to ensure Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine does not succeed. Part of this cooperation is, as Japan’s Prime Minister Kishida Fumio stressed at his June 2022 Shangri-La Dialogue keynote address, and in a recent speech before the US Congress, to ensure that “today’s Ukraine does not become East Asia’s tomorrow.”

Discussion differed on perceptions of China’s and Russia’s preferences for  the election of Donald Trump in November 2024.  Trump’s penchant for mercurial foreign policy choices and the likelihood of alienating the EU, ASEAN countries, and other allies, compared to Biden’s systemic, sequential, and allies-first approach to constraining China and defending Ukraine from Putin’s Russia, seems like a win for Moscow and Beijing. Others consider Trump’s unpredictability a US asset to be leveraged.

What are the merits and demerits of Trump’s unpredictability and it’s a discomforting position for adversaries and allies alike? Imagine what President Xi Jinping felt as he was being served a piece of chocolate cake at Mar-a-Lago while the then President Donald Trump announced that he launched 59 Tomahawk missiles into Syria? What kind of leader serves chocolate cake and shares that kind of information? The answer is an unpredictable one.

What about the orthodox foreign policy of the Biden administration?

For Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Southeast Asian countries, and Ukraine, Trump’s mercurialness and unpredictability could be existential. Japan, South Korea, the political entity of Taiwan, and other countries depend on sea lines of communication for their economic lifelines. They see the potential of Chinese regional hegemony as fundamentally transforming how their societies work. This would include choices about security, freedom of press, privacy, and how business is conducted. All would be subject to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) sensitivities, and this would reduce each states’ autonomy and independence.

If China and its authoritarian partners were to dominate the Indo-Pacific region, like-minded countries such as Australia and Japan worry about a Machiavellian, might-is-right approach to international relations emerging with Xi Jinping’s expansionist China continuing its efforts to dominate the South China Sea, Taiwan, the East China Sea, and the Himalayan plateau. They also see this behaviour as evidence of leaders who eschew a rules-based order and aim to compel neighbours to defer to their wishes.

Trump’s unpredictability compels allies of the US to invest in their own defence to demonstrate their commitment to the US and its initiatives and, importantly, align with the US to ensure that the US remains anchored into the various conflict zones or zones of instability.

While unsavory and stressful, this unpredictability pushes allies including Japan, South Korea, Australia, and Canada to take this security more seriously after decades of underspending, according to the 2023 Rand Report Inflection Point: How to reverse the Erosion of US, and Allied Military Power by Jeffrey W. Hornung and team.

For adversaries such as China and Russia, Trump’s unpredictability enhances the challenges in finding ways to de-escalate tensions or find temporary reprieve between the US and these two revisionist powers. It places the US in the position where it can maximise the use of its power. The unpredictable policy that would emanate from a Trump Presidency would serve to deter the leaders of these revisionist states in their efforts to rewrite the software of international institutions so that democracy, human rights, and rule-of-law remain aligned with democratic states’ interests rather than autocratic states. This aim of reducing democratic legitimacy to solely democratic nations has been an objective specifically articulated by prominent scholars such as Tsinghua University’s Yan Xue Tong, who writes:

China will work hard to shape an ideological environment conducive to its rise and counter Western values. For example, the United States defines democracy and freedom from the perspective of electoral politics and personal expression, while China defines democracy and freedom from the perspective of social security and economic development. Washington should accept these differences of opinion instead of trying to impose its own views on others.

The counter argument is that the Biden administration’s orthodox approach to foreign policy is predictable. And its predictability allows for authoritarian states to chip away at cohesive diplomacy and deploy disinformation and other forms of foreign policy tools to fracture alliances.

By way of example, disinformation has been used in the context of Ukraine in the US, playing on domestic politics by influencing the decisions of Congressmen and women to stop funding Ukraine. Similarly, disinformation has been effectively deployed to foster antisemitism and pro-Palestinian sentiment to complicate foreign policy decisions related to the tragedy unfolding between Israel and the Palestinians.

Authoritarian states such as China and Russia are practiced at dealing with orthodox US foreign policy. This includes an understanding of how to leverage their position within the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to block decisions such as condemning Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory, the release of Human Rights Reports on the Uyghur issue in the fall of 2023, and taking positions on the two-state solution. In either Trump or Biden’s case, there are merits and demerits to either leader coming into power. Countries like Japan, South Korea, Australia, Canada, NATO, Taiwan, and others need to think about the positives and negatives of these two leaders. This means understanding how unpredictability or predictability, unorthodox or traditional foreign policy can be employed to maximise the leverage of the US, including its comprehensive power, to push back against authoritarian states.

The key to negotiating the risks and vulnerabilities of each candidate to the national interests of allies will be how well they embody the principles laid out by the late Shinzo Abe who forged a shared interests-first approach to his interactions with the former President Trump. This occurred simultaneously while building stability, predictability, and advocates into all aspects of bilateral relations through a multilayered investment in business-to-business, politician-to-politician, military-to-military, people-to-people, and think tank to think tank relations at the local, regional, and national level.

Stephen Nagy is a Professor at the Department of Politics and International Studies at the International Christian University. Twitter handle: @nagystephen1.

Dr Satoru Nagao is a fellow (non-resident) at Hudson Institute, based in Tokyo, Japan. From December 2017 through November 2020, he was a visiting fellow at Hudson Institute, based in Washington, DC. His primary research area is US-Japan-India security cooperation. He was awarded his PhD by Gakushuin University in 2011 for his thesis, “India’s Military Strategy,” the first such research thesis on this topic in Japan. Twitter handle: @OfficerNagao

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.