Why the United States is an Unreliable Partner to Southeast Asia
As long as the Republican Party remains a viable political party capable of gaining power, the US will be politically unstable, and as a result, be an unreliable ally in the future.
Asia-Pacific policymakers who look to continued American engagement in the region should be aware that there are numerous problems in American foreign policy. The most consequential may be that the US Republican Party is incapable of responsibly governing the country yet it remains a potent political force. The party is an incubator of conspiracy theories. It aggressively denies reality in critical areas of knowledge. It promotes cultural, social, economic and racial division and grievance as political strategies. It is crippled by ideological rigidity when it adheres to its professed ideology at all.
The Asia Pacific region is the site of an intensifying struggle for economic, political, technological and military dominance between the United States and China. A muted rivalry during the first 15 years of the 21st century exploded when the hypernationalism of the Trump administration ran into the assertive policies of Xi Jinping. Containing China and crippling its economic and technological development is a position that enjoys bipartisan support in Washington. The new Biden administration is assessing its policies towards China, but early indications are that it will continue and build on the strategies implemented by Trump.
A Swedish study concluded that, since 2000, the Republicans have increasingly abandoned democratic norms. When Donald Trump was President, Congressional Republicans abrogated their constitutional duties to “check and balance” the presidency. The party has become a cult of personality, centred around Trump (even after his departure from the White House), and seems to be doubling down on this commitment. The Republicans are aggressively trying to disenfranchise voters to ensure their continued political influence. In key swing states, the party remains formidable. Joseph Biden won the last presidential election by 7 million votes nationally, but he won the Electoral College in three swing states by only 42,000 votes.
Since most of the issues facing the Asia Pacific in the future require competent government, this does not bode well for future American policies in the region when Republicans take power.
The Republicans’ continuing deterioration is a symptom of much deeper problems in the US. So long as the party remains capable of gaining power in the future, the US will be politically unstable. It will be an unreliable ally that may undermine international cooperation.
The Republican presidencies of the 21st century bear this out. The Bush administration (2001-2008) pursued an aggressive foreign policy that ran roughshod over international law, multilateral institutions and treaties, and other states. The Trump administration (2017-2021) portrayed the US-centered global economic system as fundamentally unfair to the US. The US used its economic power to attack allies and enemies alike. The Trump administration pulled the US out of the Iran nuclear deal, denied climate change, damaged the credibility of American diplomacy and assaulted international institutions and law. Biden has promised to reverse much of this, but what policies will future Republican administrations follow?
The Republican Party disparages multilateral cooperation as “globalism” and rejects “foreigners.” This antagonism will likely intensify as political, social and economic inequalities in the US worsen. Some Asian allies preferred the Trump administration’s policies of confrontation with China. However, the US “forever wars” have turned the Republican base against foreign entanglements. This compromises US commitments to existing alliances and reduces the likelihood of future alliances. The US puts extraordinary resources into its military. Military overspending detracts from the domestic reforms the US needs to address its many problems. However, domestic division within a highly militarized state already suspicious of foreigners increases the chances of political leaders constructing foreign enemies to distract from internal problems. The Republican Party is primed to follow this strategy in the future.
The Republican Party remains adamant in its opposition to “big” – i.e. effective – government. The Trump administration’s spectacular failure to manage the Covid-19 pandemic underlines the consequences of this approach. Since most of the issues facing the Asia Pacific in the future require competent government, this does not bode well for future American policies in the region when Republicans take power.
The Democratic Party is less likely to deny scientific reality (such as climate change) and understands the value of international cooperation. However, the Biden administration is already demonstrating the American penchant for using multilateral institutions when they serve American ends and discarding them when they do not. The new administration is intent on maintaining America’s unhealthy domination of the international system. It is just more genial and cooperative in how it pursues this goal.
For two decades, Southeast Asian states have tried to keep the US engaged in the Asia Pacific as a constraint on Chinese power, even as they forged stronger economic ties with China. Eventually, however, the ASEAN states would need to choose between the superpowers. US actions have moved this moment up considerably. In making its choices, Southeast Asia must appreciate that US domestic politics will determine the reliability of the US as an ally. Those politics will continue to be shaped by a radicalized Republican Party.
Shaun Narine is a Professor of International Relations at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, Canada.