President Donald Trump has forcefully carried out his decision to withdraw troops from Syria. He asked Secretary of Defense James Mattis – who opposed the decision and was originally scheduled to leave his position in February – to leave on Jan. 1, 2019, and has continued to tweet in defense of his policy decision. In one tweet, Trump wrote that replacing regimes in other countries is not America’s job.
In a recent editorial, The Washington Post criticized Trump for being a rogue president, asserting that the two restraints on him – the Republican Party and the government – had failed, and that now the courts, public opinion and society in general are the last lines of defense that can restrain him. The New York Times also said that currently, every day is a war, and that Trump could soon lose control.
The United States appears to be descending into a deep and chaotic adjustment of traditional political values that are breaking apart and forming anew out of conflict. There is discontent gathering among the lower classes that cannot be alleviated politically, growing instead into a movement among voters to change the status quo, and allowing Trump to constantly challenge the establishment with stunning decisions.
Trying to understand Trump’s thinking using traditional logic will never work. Does he only care about economics at the expense of focusing on geopolitics? Yet, he greatly increased military spending, established a space force and stressed the importance of having a nuclear arsenal more than any recent presidents. Does he no longer wish to rely on America’s traditional system of foreign alliances? He seems to want to use alliances to “make America great again,” switching from providing aid to allies to reaping more profit from them.
It would be time-consuming, exhausting and very hard to achieve full-fledged reform of American governance and international bodies led by the United States. So Trump just does what he can do directly, inducing change through taking action. Some of the actions he takes are in line with establishment thinking and are supported, such as the U.S.–China trade war. Some run so far afield from establishment thinking they face strong resistance, the withdrawal of troops from Syria being a case in point.
Trump is having a very powerful impact largely given the anger of lower-class white Americans and other populist energy. Trump’s administration does not have any clear direction; his decisions are inconsistent with any political ideology and therefore no one is certain what his next move will be.
American presidents have always devoted most of their attention to getting re-elected after they been in office for two years. Trump especially will behave like this as his re-election will receive less of the party and institutional support an incumbent usually gets, so he needs to continuously reinforce a direct emotional connection with the voters.
Withdrawing troops from Syria may have generated sharp criticism of Trump from the establishment, but he has used this decision to show that he is different from past establishment presidents. Causing a government shutdown over the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico is another way that Trump uses to stress that he is a president who represents the American people. The average American citizen cares about his or her own welfare, opposes the influx of even more immigrants and is sick of Middle East affairs. These are all public opinion pivots that Trump is willing to bet on.
Trump’s support among the populace is very strong due to his striking personality, and the reasons for the establishment to contain him are equally strong. In the next two years, the conflict between President Trump and the United States political system could be further amplified, to the point where “anything is possible.”
China should focus on being prudent in dealing with a U.S. president like this. China should stick to its principles, and avoid becoming a No. 1 target for Trump to use in showcasing his personality on the international stage. There are many bonfires burning on the U.S. political scene, and there may be even more in the future. China must see that the energy from those bonfires does not reach Sino-American relations.
China is now such a large economic and political entity. As long as China and the U.S. refrain from engaging in a real cold war, then suppressing China cannot form the basis for American foreign policy. Sino-American relations are destined to be highly complicated, and Washington cannot possibly handle all Chinese matters driven by a single overwhelming goal of suppressing China’s growth. On the basis of this fundamental premise, we should work toward expanding, not diminishing, the healthy development of Sino-American relations.