Softer Power

April 22, 2017

Vice President Pence is finishing up his tour of Asia with a visit to one of our staunchest allies in the region, Australia, with whom we have long enjoyed a special relationship. Prior to Australia, Pence spent time meeting with two other crucial regional allies, South Korea and Japan, as well as a visit to a rising regional power, Indonesia. Pence’s trip to Asia came on the heels of trips to the region by Secretary of State Tillerson and Defense Secretary Mattis. Pence’s ten-day swing through the region was mainly to reassure our allies out here in the face of recent threats from an increasingly belligerent North Korea. It was probably wise to send Pence in Trump’s place as his relatively more presidential look would play better to calm jittery allies versus Trump’s off-the-cuff and sometimes dangerous unpredictability. This trip was primarily motivated by security concerns in the region with the U.S. seeking to shore up regional alliances. In the grand scheme of things, it’s only natural to wonder what Pence’s trip means in the context of the formation of any sort of “Trump Doctrine” when it comes to foreign policy. Analysts have been trying to piece together various actions taken by Trump and his administration in the past few weeks, from a missile strike in Syria after Assad’s use of chemical weapons to blustering about reviewing NAFTA and other free trade agreements to threatening North Korea, to come up with a cohesive rationale for his decisions. Let’s put aside for a second trying to guess into which school of international relations Trumps’ actions fall into and try to make sense of all of this recent attention on Asia, a region Trump spent much of the campaign chastising for either not paying enough for its security or engaging in unfair trading practices. The realpolitik reason for this renewed interest is that North Korea poses a vital threat to regional and perhaps global stability, thus the U.S. needs to step in to ensure that things do not spiral out of control. But Trump’s way of stepping in, while hewing to some semblance of behavior what we’d expect during the flare up of an international crisis, still represents a very short-term view and is rather consistent with Trump’s manic and ego-driven approach to governing where notching up “wins” are more important than laying the groundwork for lasting success. When it seems to come to foreign policy in this administration, hard power is all the rage.

Speaking of wins, in an administration nearly 100 days in and sorely lacking in many, Trump did carry through on one campaign promise. He pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) almost immediately upon taking office, a free trade agreement that would have re-wrote trade rules for the region and ensured that the U.S. remained an integral part of Asia’s rise. Free trade agreements such as the TPP are one of the best examples of soft power, a crucial complement to hard power when trying to build lasting regional stability. However soft power is a lot more subtle than the hard power we’ve seen demonstrated by the Trump administration. It’s a lot easier to express awe at our military might as rockets hit an airfield than it is for negotiators holed up for months on end trying to hammer out a free trade agreement. However, I would argue that a free trade agreement such as the TPP encompassing approximately 40% of global GDP and 20% of global trade would serve as a crucial building block to greater regional cooperation and cement the U.S.’ commitment to the region. Yet it seems that soft power has no place in whatever Trump Doctrine is emerging and instead of being proactive and regional institutions for regional and global stability, we maintain a reactive posture in the region that has us and our allies on the defensive in the face of a rogue state and begging China to help us rein in this rogue state.

As we fast forward nearly three months from when Trump pulled the U.S. out of the TPP, we will have had three visits to the region by some of the most senior members of the Trump administration.  They have been out here trying to temper the North Korean threat by reassuring our allies that we’ll stand with them.  However, this is the problem with hard power.  It looks impressive in action, but its effects tend to be either temporary, unsettling to the global order, or both.  That’s not to say that hard power such as firing missiles to send a message after a gross violation of human rights and international norms is a bad thing.  What is a bad thing is when hard power is not balanced out with the more nuanced and less tangible benefits of soft power, which quietly does it work when we’re not baring our teeth in a display of hard power and goes further in ensuring enduring peace and prosperity.

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Much has made of Trump’s shake-up of foreign policy norms even before he’s officially taken office, whether it’s connecting with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, having his daughter sit in on meetings with both Japanese PM Abe and Turkish President Edrogran, or launching misspelled Twitter rants in China’s direction.  I’ll be the first to admit that after Trump’s call with Tsai, I was somewhat elated that someone had recognized how impressive Taiwan’s efforts had been to create an open and democratic society in a little over 20 years.  For someone who has been an amateur Sinologist his entire life, I was also startled that I liked that the two had spoken.  I was startled because I, like many in the foreign policy establishment, had taken the official “One China” policy as a given for maintaining regional stability and had never contemplated challenging it in any sort of way for fear of what the consequences may be. Yet, with his phone call, Trump called China’s bluff and the world did not end.  However, I cannot give him credit for being any sort of visionary possessing a coherent world view or adherent to any discernible tenets of foreign policy.  I think it was purely accidental that this phone call started a dialogue about what the “One China” policy means and to what ends both sides will go to maintain a fiction that has served everyone well for nearly 30 years.  One only has to look at Trump’s subsequent actions to see that this seeming stroke of brilliance was not pre-meditated on his part (his staffers may be a different story) and does not reflect a President-elect with a strategy or plan for advancing U.S. interests abroad.  His follow-up tweets and interview on Fox News that he could use Taiwan as a bargaining chip to extract concessions on trade from China demonstrate that he understands nothing about U.S. – China relations and Taiwan’s place in the middle of that power dynamic, but merely took a phone call from someone congratulating him on and inflating his ego for winning the election.

Where does that leave U.S. – China relations when Trump assumes office next month?  If we try to extrapolate the type of foreign policy he and his team are going to conduct once in office, it might be instructive to examine his reaction to China’s seizure of an underwater drone off the coast of the Philippines.  Upon hearing about the incident, he blasted out a tweet calling the act “unpresidented” and once it had been settled that China would return the drone, he then tweeted to “[l]et them keep it!”  While there is seemingly not much to go on here, the worrisome takeaway from all of Trump’s commentary on U.S. – China relations, commentary being a generous word to use to describe his tweeting, is that the man does not have a clue as to what he’s doing and the people surrounding him are encouraging this no-nothing behavior.  At worst, Trump and his team believe unpredictably poking China like a third-grader to provoke a reaction is the best approach to calibrating U.S. – China relations and advancing his “America First” agenda.  This approach completely ignores the nuances of U.S. – China relations and the search for common ground on issues like climate change and North Korea that the Obama administration worked so hard to achieve.  While U.S. – China relations are anything but easy or predictable, it is one of the most important bilateral relationships in the global order and will only continue to become more so as China continues to rise and the U.S. seeks to maintain its influence in the Asia-Pacific.

I have argued here before and perhaps now believe it even more, but the U.S. needs a new grand strategy when it comes to the Asia-Pacific region.  Recent history shows us to be reactionary throughout the region, whether it’s stationing more U.S. troops in Darwin or carrying out more multilateral military exercises to respond to a rising China or slapping even more punishing sanctions on North Korea after their latest missile test.  Rather than reacting, we need to be proactive to create a regional architecture that promotes peace and prosperity in the region for everyone, including China.  Even the TPP, which would have gone a long way towards laying one part of the foundation for such an architecture, was flawed in that it kept China outside.  The U.S. decision to remain outside of the AIIB was another such decision that was more a reaction to China having created the institution rather than actually thinking about what the U.S. could do to shape it as a founding member.  Unfortunately, we now have a President and his attendant team taking power that barely knows the meaning of the word strategy when it comes to foreign affairs, let alone something that requires more forethought and nuance like a grand strategy for the Asia-Pacific region.

I’ve just returned to Hong Kong after two weeks of what I think is a very typical twenty-first century vacation where it was ostensibly supposed to be about unplugging and enjoying time with family and friends, but ended up being more of a hybrid of work and vacation with the boundaries never as clear cut as I would have liked.  My trip home also happened to coincide with the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, which means I was able to catch bits of pieces of what was a very dark and angry four days, culminating in an acceptance speech by Donald Trump that perfectly embodied all of the hate, fear, pessimism, and anger with a dose of the ridiculousness that characterized not only the prior four days, but much of his campaign.  And yet coming back to Hong Kong, I am still happy to be an American.  There is always something about these trips that makes me appreciate where I come from in a way that I did not when I was younger and lived overseas.  While part of it may have to do with the abundant choice in America’s stores, there is also something about being home and recognizing I am a product of my home. Now being happy to be an American and proud of my country are two different things and after witnessing the debacle that was the RNC last week, my pride is being held back until the outcome of the presidential election in November.  There is a lot of hate and fear in the U.S., which is part of the same strain of hate and fear that propelled the “Leave” campaign in the Brexit vote and almost saw a right-wing nationalist get elected to the presidency in Austria.  Beyond these countries, fear and hate are mobilizing large parts of electorates in other European countries as we seem to be caught in a moment where openness, tolerance, and optimism are in short supply.  I understand that I am fortunate as someone who has been able to live and travel around the world and have benefitted from globalization in ways that large segments of the world population have not, but it also frightens me that those who are fearful of the future or angry about what is happening around them cannot take a step back and put things in perspective and realize that we are better off today in so many ways than we were yesterday.  I can’t pretend to know what it is like to have lost one’s job and struggle to find another one because there are no job opportunities available to them, whether its because they simply do not exist where they live or they do not have the requisite skills to get a new job.  I can’t pretend to understand a feeling of being trapped or in despair because I can’t pay my bills and am one medical emergency away from not being able to keep a roof over my head or food on my table.  Yet, the irony in all of this is that it’s me or more accurately, people like me who do not have a clue who are supposed to come up with the policies to help people facing untenable life situations.  One thing I can understand is the appeal of someone who seems to offer a quick fix or has no qualms scapegoating individuals and worse, entire groups of people.  It’s comforting to have someone give voice to the things you may be thinking and to attack those whom you perceive as partly responsible for your lot.  What I have been struggling with is how to connect with people who feel disconnected and angry with the way things have gone, but in a way that is constructive and positive versus destructive and negative.  Unfortunately, the Democrats have not done any better than the Republicans in figuring out how to accomplish this seemingly impossible task.  What the Democrats have done for the most part is not degenerate into name calling and personal attacks, but have actually had debates on policy including the proper role of government in righting these wrongs.  It’s just hard to stomach policy debates when you’re worried about where your next paycheck in coming from or you feel threatened by all of the changes taking place by you.  It’s easier to hark back to another time when things seemed simpler and frankly better.  Even I do that sitting here thinking my life was so much easier when I was younger, but forgetting the angst that came along with adolescence.  I am not trying to pretend I can understand the anguish, hopelessness, or fear that seemingly large segments of the American population are feeling, but I can relate to the idea that we tend to look at the past with rose-colored glasses because it’s known whereas the future is a giant unknown and these days tends to be tinged with darkness.  The challenge is to find a way to regain that optimism that makes Americans uniquely American.  If this post sounds at all jingoistic, I apologize because I am also deeply aware of my country’s flaws and will be the first to acknowledge them, but I also know that in spite of the whatever terrible thing may be happening in the U.S., whether its obstructionist government, a recession, buffoonery among our political class, or more common lately, a gun-related tragedy at every turn, we as a people tend to rise above and move forward.  What scares me now and something I feel more acutely being over 8000 miles from home, thus able to look at things with more perspective, is that we seem to be losing the ability to look and then move forward.  That inability to keep progressing is what may be the most worrisome thing about where we’re currently at as a country.  One side of our political spectrum has decided to capitalize on that inability and turn it into a rallying cry to govern.  The challenge for the other side is to figure out how to appeal to the desire in all of us to move forward and be even better tomorrow than we were the day before, regardless of party affiliation or personal circumstances.  If there ever was a time when we needed hope, it’s more so now than it seems to ever have been, whether it was 1860, 1932, or 2008.

I’ve been remiss in my writing and part of it has been due to setting up a new life in Hong Kong while working a full-time job, but some of it is also due to the fact that my mind has been on overload about the goings-on in the world, including the scary state of American presidential politics, China’s continued descent into the cult of Xi, and the general economic malaise that seems to be afflicting the globe.  Of course none of this things are really within my control to change, so you must be wondering why I am getting so worked up about all of this.  I think it’s precisely because there is nothing that I can do about the rise of Donald Trump, the mindless sycophants following Bernie Sanders and his call for “political revolution” whenever he’s asked a question on specifics, or China seemingly going backward in terms of openness and transparency as it tries to quell an increasingly restless population.

And yet here I am sitting in Hong Kong, which is technically a part of China and with each passing day, feeling that way based on the headlines of missing booksellers, dismissive treatment of Hong Kong officials up in Beijing, and a feeling of futility here that there is no real point in defying Beijing and it’s plans for the city.  Maybe it’s just a general feeling of hopelessness about the world.  When you think too much and tend towards overanalyzing while being extremely sensitive, it’s hard not to get caught up in all of these things.  As an American living so far from home, it would be easily to cut myself off from the spectacle that is this year’s election, but being far away I feel it more acutely because the distance filters all the noise and all that comes through is the nastiness and anger in its purist form.  I won’t go on and on about how frightening Donald Trump is because he is really not all that different from other new-fascist politicians rising all across the world, especially in Europe.  The U.S. is just behind on the curve, but now it looks like we’re quickly catching up.  I think there was this feeling that the American system and its electorate were created and evolved in such a way as to prevent the emergence of someone like Trump, but at the end of the day the U.S. is no different.  What I find disturbing is not that people are saying and doing the things that they are, but that we’re unable to have a real conversation about what it all means.  I read some commentators and they tend to think Trump is a good thing because he’s bringing these feelings and thoughts to the fore, but he’s either not equipped or willing to actually spark a dialogue about what this means for the U.S. and our future.  It’s that inability that scares me more than anything.  I know that there is a lot of hate and xenophobia in America, but until now it was not a strong enough sentiment to fuel a presidential candidate to the fore of either major party.  And who do we get?  Donald Trump, who more often than not seems like a politicized version of his Apprentice persona incapable of coherent and meaningful thoughts, but instead prone to inciting soundbites and rambling monologues that even the closest reader would be unable to follow.

And then we have Bernie Sanders, who is really the other side of the same political coin as Trump.  It just happens to be that his politics align more closely with my own, so he seems less threatening.  But if you listen to him, he has no real answers. Ask him how he’ll fight climate change or fund $1 trillion in infrastructure investments and his answer is always the same – political revolution.  It’s an insult to Americans that he won’t put forth substantive plans to accomplish his goals, but then again a number of Americans do not seem to care.  The young voters who flock to him who don’t know what it really means to live and are probably still dependents under their parents’ insurance policy thanks to Obamacare and those who make so much money that they don’t really care how much it costs to fund his plans.  Recently Bernie has been targeting white, working class voters in the Rust Belt with his tirades against free trade.  Trade is an easy target and often misunderstood.  And that in a nutshell is Bernie Sander’s approach to politics.  Take complex topics, boil them down to a pithy one-liner like “take down billionaires” or “dismantle campaign finance” or if all else fails, call for a political revolution and voters cheer him on.  At the end of the day, it’s no different than Donald Trump except Bernie seems less odious than Trump because of his seemingly friendly policies.  Yet throw in his misogynistic undertones embodied best by the toxic Bernie Bros and his dismissive attitude towards Hillary and you have your very own version of a demagogue on the left.

I did not intend this post to devolve into a commentary on the presidential election, but it’s been on my mind and it’s hard to think about China and the rest of the world when this spectacle is taking place in the U.S.  Even China is using our own election as a rationale for why democracy is dangerous and authoritarian rule is safer.  It’s also problematic when Trump seemingly supported the Chinese government’s use of brute force in Tiananmen in 1989.  So at the end of the day all of these events are interconnected and the idea of America being any sort of leader or guide for the rest of the world is fast becoming a fantasy.  I just hope in my heart of hearts that the American electorate smartens up and does something to rescue our country from the abyss instead of chasing the easy candidates who either stand for hate, isolationism, over-simplicity, or half-baked plans for the future.