Can Elizabeth Warren help turn the populist tide?

During her recent visit to China, a Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren (perceived by many as a potential Presidential Candidate of the Democratic Party in 2020), came down heavily on US President Donald Trump’s approach towards foreign policy, arguing that it lacks substance, is unpredictable, and does not pay much attention to liberal values and human rights, which according to her has been the cornerstone of US foreign policy for a long time.

Trump’s unpredictability

Commenting on Trump’s unpredictable approach towards Asia, Warren stated:

This has been a chaotic foreign policy in the region, and that makes it hard to keep the allies that we need to accomplish our objectives closely stitched-in.

Critical of US approach towards China

Warren met with senior Chinese officials including Liu He, vice-premier for economic policy, Yang Jiechi, a top diplomat, and the minister of defense, Wei Fenghe, and discussed a number of important issues including trade and the North Korea issue.

Warren criticised China for being relatively closed, and stated that the US needed to have a more realistic approach towards Beijing. She also spoke of the need for the US to remain committed to raising Human Rights issues, and not skirt the issue, while dealing with China.

Said the Democratic Senator:

There are areas where we have mutual interests and where we will work together to try to accomplish our shared goals. But there are also areas where we are vigorous competitors and do not have shared interests.

Trump’s approach towards North Korea

Third, she was quick to dub Trump’s decision to meet with Kim Jong Un as ‘rash’ given the fact that no assurance had been given to the US with regard to denuclearization.

Finally, Warren underscored the fact that the Trump administration has ignored the diplomatic corps. Previous Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, who fell out with Trump over the Iran issue, had differences with diplomats over a number of issues; budget cuts, leaving important positions vacant, and downplaying the human rights issue.

Are Warren’s criticisms legitimate? Skepticism in East Asia

Trump’s unpredictability is worrying allies, and not just in East Asia. While South Korea and Japan were first worried about Trump’s stand on the need for both to pay for US-provided security. Last year in April, he asked South Korea to pay for an anti-missile system, and spoke about renegotiating a trade agreement, ‘KORUS’, that has been sharply criticized by Trump (he dubbed it ‘horrible’). The US President’s statements were criticized by prominent analysts and policymakers given the instability in the Korean Peninsula.

More recently, while South Korea was negotiating with North Korea to reduce tensions over the nuclear issue, Trump imposed tariffs on aluminium and steel, which have impacted both South Korea and Japan. While the US agreed to exempt South Korea from steel tariffs, it did impose a quota on steel imports, as the two countries agreed in principle to. South Korea agreed to provide greater access to US automobile manufacturers.

India worried about Trump’s approach

Even allies like India are worried not just with regard to Trump’s insular economic policies (restrictions imposed on H1B visas being a major issue), but also his simplistic stand towards Iran, where India has invested in Chabahar Project, which has the potential to be India’s gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia.

The second point which Warren made has merit as well. It is important because Trump has not really spoken out against China’s human rights record, as his outbursts have been directed more at China’s economic moves. During his visit to Beijing, Trump did not raise the human rights issue at all. Instead, he criticized previous US governments. The US President has gotten along with other leaders, like Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who has scant respect for Human Rights. During his meeting with Duterte, the issue of Human Rights did not come up. On the other hand, the US President has praised China, the Philippines, and Singapore for executing drug traffickers, and even advocated a similar approach towards drug peddlers in the US. Given the fact that Trump’s focus is on business, human rights are inconsequential in his dealings with other leaders and he is comfortable with many authoritarian leaders.

Third, in the context of North Korea, it is not just Warren, but a number of analysts who believe that Trump’s decision is not well thought out, and he is banking on personal chemistry. There is also a skepticism that if any summit were to go ahead, North Koreans know that he is prone to flattery and the US may be outmaneuvered. There is a worry that if summitry does not achieve any desired goals, the US President may then take an excessively hawkish stance.

US allies like Japan want their demands to be accommodated (Japan is worried that the US President may reach an agreement where its own cities are prevented from a nuclear attack, while Japan may be left vulnerable in spite of the security alliance between both countries).

Finally, Trump is literally running the US like a business enterprise. He has fired 18 colleagues including 2 National Security Advisors and a Secretary of State. There are numerous problems with the embedded establishment in Washington DC (the Beltway), but expertise is needed, especially in the context of complex foreign policy issues. Diplomatic corps need to be given more importance and it remains to be seen if Trump focuses on this.

While the US President may think that his style is working and his approval ratings have risen slightly (to 42 percent from 40 percent in early March, though they are still not particularly high). The US President has also lost a number of mid-term elections, including PA 18 Congressional seat. He would be well advised to pay heed to the advice of Warren.


Opposition leaders in other parts of the world, including India, would do well to learn from Warren’s logical criticisms of Trump. It is easy to criticize policies, but it is important to remain nuanced, and give constructive suggestions like Warren. The crux of her argument, that content should take precedence over optics, and principles should matter as much as pragmatism in US foreign policy, are important. Are we likely to see an alternative foreign policy narrative, which may well put Trump on the defensive in the US, and could leaders in other countries take a cue from Warren?

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