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Thomas Wright: What a Trump presidency could do to the world

With seven wins out of 11 states in the Super Tuesday nominating contests, Donald Trump has emerged as the odds-on favorite to win the Republican nomination and face Hillary Clinton in November's U.S. presidential election. At a press conference as the returns came rolling in, an Australian journalist asked Trump what his presidency would mean for the world. It is a question that is perplexing every world leader: is Trump as radical as he seems?

     The Republican foreign policy establishment seems to think so. From hawks to doves, they have gone into rebellion. Sixty Republican national security experts and former senior officials have published a letter publicly condemning Trump and declaring him unfit to serve as Commander in Chief. Many have promised to vote for Democrat favorite Hillary Clinton if Trump is the Republican nominee. Others have gone further. Michael Hayden, who served as George W. Bush's CIA director said that if "President Trump" governed in a manner consistent with his campaign rhetoric, the American armed forces would be required to disobey some of his orders.

     The reason for Republican unease is simple. Trump has a foreign policy that would upend America's role in the world and could set in motion the worst international crisis since the 1930s. Asia may well be the hardest hit.

     Contrary to popular perception, Trump has a long and consistent world view dating back to 1987 when, at the age of 41, he spent $95,000 to take out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times criticizing U.S. foreign and defense policy. He has three core beliefs consistent with the notion that America is getting a bad deal from the rest of the world.

     Firstly, Trump is angry, not at America's enemies but at its friends. He strongly opposes U.S. alliance commitments to other wealthy nations, particularly Japan. He believes that if the U.S. must defend its allies then it should be handsomely rewarded for doing so. On the campaign trail, he has promised to renegotiate the U.S.-Japan alliance and has demanded that South Korea pay much more for U.S. support.

     Secondly, Trump strongly opposes free trade agreements and wants to make use of American economic power to negotiate one-sided mercantilist trading arrangements with other countries. He has threatened massive tariffs on China and Mexico.

     Finally, Trump has a fondness for authoritarian leaders because he believes they are strong and can do business. He has praised Vladimir Putin who returned the favor by endorsing him. While he has criticized Chinese economic policy towards the U.S. he has had nice words for Xi Jinping.

     Trump has held these views for decades. In this campaign, the real estate mogul has also proposed policies such as deliberately targeting civilians to fight terrorism, as well as a xenophobic stance towards Muslims.

Not just words

It is tempting to think that this is all just campaign rhetoric. After all, newly elected American presidents often know little about the world. Once in office, they learn fast and abandon irresponsible promises. Jimmy Carter said he would withdraw U.S. forces from South Korea but quickly changed his mind when confronted with reality.

     But Trump is different. He has thought long and hard about foreign policy. In many ways he is a foreign policy candidate. His view may be radical but it is coherent. And it is striking a chord in a portion of the electorate. His message is also one with cross-party appeal -- there are Democrats receptive to his isolationism and economic nationalism.

     If elected, Trump will no doubt plunge America's alliances and even the global economy into crisis. Imagine, for instance, if he demands that Japan and South Korea pay exponentially more to the U.S. for their alliances and further calls on Japan to agree to significant changes in the U.S.-Japan Treaty. He may suspend U.S. commitments until these demands are agreed to. How would China respond in the East China Sea? What would North Korea do?

     Trump's election would be a huge boon to China and Russia. It would immediately eviscerate U.S. influence in Asia. Japan would soon discover that it had to go it alone and might reconsider acquiring nuclear weapons. South Korea would gravitate towards Beijing, alongside its hostile northern neighbor. Southeast Asia would have to accommodate China and accept its dominance of the South China Sea. Meanwhile, the global economy would go into free-fall as the U.S. embraced protectionism.

The enemy within

The world has never encountered an American leader like Trump. U.S. power is embedded in a system of rules, institutions and alliances. Trump believes that these commitments damage American interests and he is determined to cast them off. There is now deep concern in Washington about his candidacy and a widespread view that Trump is a threat to U.S. national security and world peace more generally.

     This election will be unlike any other in American history. It is about truly fundamental issues. What sort of country is the U.S. and will it uphold its global position, or liquidate it? Trump will not shy away from this choice. He will make foreign policy a central part of his campaign. Trump will attack Clinton for favoring "one sided alliances" and slam Japan, South Korea, Germany, and others. He will do this repeatedly and vividly. We will find out just how much this isolationist message resonates with the electorate. This alone could damage American credibility.

     There is a limited amount of damage Trump can do to American domestic politics. The power of the presidency is checked by Congress, the courts, and the law. If Trump oversteps the mark he may be impeached. But the power of the presidency is much greater in foreign policy. There, the damage he could wreak in a short period of time is considerably greater.

     Clinton now finds herself as the standard-bearer and last line of defense for American internationalism. She will have a positive case for America's global role, for alliances, for rules, and for trade. Clinton will have many Republicans by her side and she remains heavily favored to win. Asia, and the world, will hold its breath.

Thomas Wright is a fellow and director of the Project on International Order and Strategy at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

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