23 February 2019
Under the influence of his daughter Ivanka Trump (left) and son-in law Jared Kushner (right), US President Donald Trump seems to be gradually changing his policy direction and governing style. Photo: Reuters
Under the influence of his daughter Ivanka Trump (left) and son-in law Jared Kushner (right), US President Donald Trump seems to be gradually changing his policy direction and governing style. Photo: Reuters

Why Trump is going back on his ‘America First’ pledge

Last week, US President Donald Trump unexpectedly ordered the bombing of an airfield controlled by Syrian government troops with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles. The strike came as Chinese President Xi Jinping was paying a flying visit to Florida to meet Trump at his private resort there.

Many political analysts took the view that the timing of the airstrike was hardly coincidental and believed Trump was trying to kill two birds with one stone: to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons against his own people, and send a strong message to both China and North Korea that the US will not sit still and allow Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions to go unchecked.

In the meantime, as a defiant North Korea prepares to conduct its sixth nuclear test despite widespread international condemnation, and is set to detonate a thermonuclear device with a yield of 280 kilotons of TNT, or 22 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Trump has deployed an aircraft carrier battle group led by the USS Carl Vinson to waters off the Korean peninsula as an active response to Pyongyang’s provocative behavior.

Recently, Trump has vowed that if Beijing is unable to talk Pyongyang out of its nuclear program, Washington will take unilateral action to halt North Korea’s nuclear threat.

At first glance, that Washington was bombing Syria and sending a fleet to deter another rogue state in northeast Asia from pressing ahead with its nuclear program is hardly surprising because after all, the US has been widely regarded as the world’s policeman since the end of World War II.

However, if we take a closer look, we will find that the attack against Syria indeed constitutes a direct contradiction to the isolationist approach of “America First” pitched by Trump throughout his campaign.

In fact, the airstrike against Syria immediately angered some of the most outspoken extreme right activists in the US, who slammed Trump for going back on his election pledge by unnecessarily intervening in another irrelevant foreign conflict.

So why did Trump suddenly deviate from his isolationist stance? Perhaps his shift in his approach to foreign policy has a lot to do with his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has prevailed in a recent power struggle with the ultra-right Steve Bannon and emerged as Trump’s most trusted and highly regarded political adviser.

Unlike Bannon, who is both an ultra-right populist and diehard isolationist, Kushner is more of a centrist who believes the Trump administration must strike a reasonable balance between taking care of domestic issues and maintaining US influence in global affairs.

And Kushner has been at odds with Bannon because he believes Bannon’s highly controversial and polarizing policy initiatives such as proposing to build a wall along the US-Mexico border and banning nationals from several problematic Islamic countries from entering the US have led to his father-in-law’s plummeting approval ratings in recent months.

Now that Bannon has fallen out of favour with Trump and been forced out of his inner circle, many believe Trump is likely to follow Kushner’s advice and backpedal on his isolationist pledges, and US foreign policy is likely to be drawn more to the centrist theme in the days ahead.

Trump already toned down his rhetoric when he addressed Congress in March on his daughter Ivanka Trump’s advice, and thanks to his softened tone, his popularity saw a significant rebound afterward.

Trump’s adjustment of his approach to diplomacy is bound to have far-reaching implications for world politics.

And while the latest attack on Syria and the deployment of the USS Carl Vinson to the Korean peninsula have provoked a fierce backlash from both Moscow and Pyongyang, the entire world is anxiously waiting to see how Kushner is going to help his father-in-law defuse the escalating North Korean crisis.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Apr. 10

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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