There are few people Donald Trump has constantly sought to distance himself from more than his Presidential predecessor Barack Obama. Even prior to declaring his candidacy in 2015, Trump’s always active Twitter was filled with ire for Barack Obama in respect of both his domestic and foreign policies. The JCPOA (aka Iran nuclear deal) is an area where it has become particularly clear that Trump’s policies are in great part motivated by a desire to undo what he considers to be the damage of the Obama years.
Obama’s securing of the JCPOA was among the most vocal points of Trump’s contention with his predecessor. As part of his ‘wrecking ball’ strategy of repealing most of his predecessor’s flagship policies ranging from the domestic Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) to Obama’s policies towards both Europe and the Arab world, the JCPOA was an obvious major target in this respect.
In this sense, Trump’s dislike of the JCPOA can in many ways be described as more of an emotional response to Barack Obama than an objective response to either the events inside Iran, Iran’s involvement in the anti-terror wars in Iraq and Syria or even Israel’s anti-Iranian foreign policy. Because of this, Trump’s decision to welcome re-engagement with Iran over a “new deal” should not be dismissed as mere rhetoric.
Just as he blamed his predecessors for doing a poor job in “handling” the DPRK, many of Trump’s most controversial foreign policies are actually part of his strategy to undo what he sees as poor legacies of the recent political past in the US. In this sense, much of Trump’s seemingly “irrational” foreign policy is as much to strengthen his hand in domestic politics as it is anything else.
This helps to contextualise a recent editorial printed in China’s highly influential newspaper People’s Daily where author Sun Chenghao postulates that the foreign policies of Donald Trump and Barack Obama are effectively the same – the only differences being the rhetoric which surrounds the policies in question and the intensity of Donald Trump which contrasts with the middle-management style of his predecessor.
The key areas where Sun points out similarities between Trump and Obama are as follows:
Liberal hegemony is now “illiberal hegemony”
Sun highlights the fact that while Barack Obama pursued neo-imperial American hegemony under the clarion call of imposing liberalism on foreign nations, Trump effectively pursues the same policies only in the pursuit of liberalism’s antithesis. Sun describes this phenomenon in the following way:
“The Donald Trump administration’s strategy of “America first” is considered by many as “America only”. They believe Trump has diverted his predecessor Barack Obama’s diplomacy to another direction.
This diversion can be observed from the country’s recent diplomatic moves from withdrawals of multiple “international groups” to the relocation of the US embassy in Israel.
However, the ongoing diplomatic strategies and logic of the US government are still a continuation of the former administration’s policies. The difference is that the current policies have shaken off the banner of the so-called liberalism, and become simpler and cruder.
The “illiberal hegemony” pursued by Trump still stressed the importance of hegemony, just like what Obama addressed at the United States Military Academy, also known as West Point, in 2014, “America must always lead on the world stage.”
From the macroscopic perspective, the national strength of the US is still on a downward trend because of the financial crisis and two anti-terrorism wars, which determines that Trump’s and Obama’s foreign policies have no difference in nature”.
An eastern pivot
While Barack Obama was the darling of the European liberal elite, he nevertheless oversaw an era of a much publicised “pivot to Asia” wherein the US sought to re-align its post-Cold War strategy to one of attempting to subdue China’s progress in becoming a positive influence in Asia through pan-Asian connectivity projects, most notably One Belt–One Road. This represented a departure from America’s lingering Cold War anti-Soviet containment strategy although as history proved, Obama was equally successful at provoking Russia as he was in respect of China. About this phenomenon, Sun writes:
“Trump’s decisions all started from safeguarding the narrow national interests of the US so as to cut off the route for other countries who plan to take a free ride and concentrate on reciprocity and mutual benefit on resources.
Apart from the “retrenchment” strategies adopted by Obama, Trump places more importance on diversifying the approaches to safeguard the US hegemony.
Under the context of strategic contraction, Trump continued Obama’s choice of shifting the US strategic pivot to the east. With a focus on ending anti-terrorist wars in the Middle East, Obama withdrew the US troops from Iraq, and made a timetable for pulling US army out from Afghanistan.
For Trump, he doesn’t want to spend much on the Middle East either though he outlined new strategy for Afghanistan and Iran”.
Lead from behind
The unpopularity of George W. Bush’s 2003 war on Iraq lead to the development of an Obama era strategy commonly referred to as “lead from behind”. This implies that American authored strategic operations would be frequently led by those waving flags other than the stars and stripes even though America’s less visible presence in said operations would still be the domineering force. According to Sun, this strategy is as much at play under Trump as it was under his predecessor:
“Obama started a process of recessing from the political and diplomatic agendas of Europe in his administration, during which the US also ‘led from behind’ on Libya, delegated the mediation work to France and Germany during the Ukraine crisis, and broke the ‘red line’ promise on the alleged chemical weapons in Syria with military action.
Now Trump has gone a step further than Obama as he not only shut his ears to the European internal crisis and interfered with internal affairs in Europe by supporting Brexit and associating with populist leaders, but also pressured the Europe on economy and trade and prioritized its own interests instead of responsibility on security issues”.
Inventing the”Indo-Pacific” region
The region that Americans traditionally called the Asia-Pacific region was in the Obama years re-cast in the US lexicon as the “Indo-Pacific”. The clear goal behind this rhetorical re-imagination of Asian geography was to minimise China’s role as the predominant Asian power by assigning a vaunted position to Beijing’s self-described Indian rivals. According to Sun, while Obama and Trump have implemented divergent strategies in both south and east Asia, the overarching “Indo-Pacific” trajectory of US policies has remained consistent between the Obama and Trump administrations:
“The US is placing more resources on the Asia-Pacific or the so-called ‘Indo-Pacific’ region while reducing its presence in the Middle East and Europe in a well-planned manner.
The current Indo-Pacific is still a concept and in lack of important economic support from such initiatives as Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. But the US’ continuous efforts to transfer its military forces to Indo-Pacific region and strengthen its link with Japan, Australia and India give full evidence of its determination to keep shifting strategic pivot to Asia-Pacific region”.
No long term vision
After contrasting differences between Obama and Trump’s approach to domestic issues, Sun concludes by pointing out that neither Obama nor Trump’s strategies have a clear goal. Sun writes,
“The US finally comes to a real strategic contraction under Trump’s administration after the transition in Obama administration. However, both Obama and Trump haven’t mapped out a big strategy that will guide the US for future decades, but sent confusing signals to the outside by adopting foreign policies that were more likely to be reactive response and passive strategic adjustments to current situations”.
Is Trump really that similar to Obama?
Sun makes incredibly strong arguments about the overall trajectory of various American foreign policies that have remained consistent between the Obama and Trump administrations. There are however some critical differences.
Trump’s tank has brakes
While Barack Obama used milder language compared to Trump, his policies were in fact far more extreme. While Obama did not hesitate to cripple Libya, push for violent jihadist regime change in Syria, push for fascist regime change in Ukraine, make Europe subservient to the US in the form of TTIP and form an anti-Chinese TPP trade alliance, Trump has pursued a very different route in many of these areas.
In his first days in office, Trump used his executive power to end America’s participation in the TPP, thus sending a clear message that while China has firm convictions about its trade initiatives and support mechanisms in place to make One Belt–One Road a success, under Trump, the US is not concerned with creating a zero-sum rival initiative to China’s flagship international connectivity project.
Likewise, when it comes to Europe, Trump has effectively killed off TTIP through placing tariffs on America’s long standing European partners with a similar approach being used against NAFTA partners Canada and Mexico. While Trump wants Europe to open its markets to the US, he has stated that at present the US markets are too open to European goods as it stands. Thus, the idea of a corporate driven EU-US free trading agreement is all but dead under Trump.
In respect of Syria and Ukraine, the US under Trump has ended a policy of fanaticism that typified the Obama years. The recent Helsinki summit between Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart demonstrated that the US no longer seeks regime change as a priority in Damascus but is instead willing to work with Russia to insure a largely pre-2011 status quo in the region, particularly where Israel’s relations with Syria are concerned. In respect of Ukraine, Trump hardly ever mentions the subject even when provoked. He clearly has little interest in the economic basket case that is the Kiev regime, whose leaders colluded with the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2016.
While the specific examples of continuity in US policies between the Obama and Trump administrations that Sun illustrates are undeniably true, the equally important differences adumbrated above are also true. In this sense, comparing and contrasting Obama and Trump is not a zero-sum equation. That being said, Sun’s article has a very important strategic goal beyond its factual qualities.
In comparing Trump to Obama, Sun is clearly nudging Trump as if to say ‘do you really want to follow in the footsteps of the man you hate’? The goal of such a strategy is to get Trump to rethink his policies towards Asia as a whole and China in particular.
As it is clear that Trump is uniquely motivated by a desire to undo the alleged achievements of his predecessor, perhaps the spirit of Sun’s article can help Trump to realise that in playing a long-term zero-sum game with China, he is really playing a more amplified version of the words spoken by Barack Obama. If anything could force Trump to pause for reflection, comparing him to Obama might be the thing to force such a pause.