The transactional mindset that served President Donald Trump so well in his business career appears ill-suited to international relations; this is particularly the case at a time when the US faces a revanchist Russia and a rising China increasingly jealous of American influence in the Asia-Pacific.

A historically divisive and ugly presidential campaign; the shock election of Donald Trump as president; subsequent months of turbulent politics, featuring scandal and erratic presidential pronouncements but little legislative action: these were the chief elements of an extraordinarily eventful and disruptive period for the United States during the year to mid-2017.

They left other governments around the world unsure whether long-standing tenets and assumptions about the US still held, and whether the US still aspired to leadership of the free world, as had all its presidents in living memory. Some leaders espied opportunities to advance their nations’ interests in personal diplomacy with Trump, a businessman and television celebrity who had no experience of government. Others, especially in Europe, wondered whether they could still count on Washington as a firm ally.

Uncertainty in the United States

The US had become an increasingly divided country during the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency. While this had been a period of steady recovery from the near-collapse of the financial system in 2008, among the white working class there was a sense of being left behind, and a rising anti-establishment perception that the Democratic Party had become devoted to identity politics that consistently privileged ethnic minorities, women, gays and transgender people, as well as favouring banks and corporations over working people. Trump tapped into this dissatisfaction in a populist campaign that deployed racist messaging, anti-Muslim fear-mongering and personal attacks on his opponent, Hillary Clinton. Both candidates, in their different ways, were polarising figures who had the highest disapproval ratings of any candidates in the previous ten presidential elections. The tone of the campaign was epitomised by Trump’s repeated encouragement of his audiences to chant ‘lock her up’ when discussion turned to Clinton’s use of a private email server during her 2009–13 tenure as secretary of state.

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