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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Steak and Distractions

April 8, 2017

Trump and Xi Jinping just concluded two days of supposedly tough discussions at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Florida club where he goes to get away from the troubles of Washington. It’s unclear what exactly came out of the two days’ worth of meetings, but from press reports they allegedly discussed North Korea and the trade deficit, two items Trump had flagged as priorities. And as a delightful welcome around the time they were finishing dinner the first evening, Trump authorized US military strikes on a Syrian airbase in a stunning reversal of his “America First” policy that wasn’t supposed to include such actions. Putting aside whether the strikes were warranted in light of Assad’s horrific attack on his own people using illegal chemical weapons, much has been made about the timing and message that Trump was sending to his guest. Was the rapid reversal in Trump’s approach to Syria merely a reaction to the gruesome images of dying babies or was it also motivated by some bigger picture thinking about the kind of message he wants to send to Xi and others about the US’ future role in conflicts around the globe. It would be generous to think Trump truly understands the implications of his attack and actually has a plan for bringing the Syrian conflict to an end. I mean this was the man who told us throughout the election that he had a plan to defeat ISIS, but it was so good that he did not want to share it before he could implement. Upon taking office, we quickly learned that plan never existed.  It was a similar pattern with health care, though in a rare admission, Trump acknowledged in the midst of the health care debacle that it was “complicated”.  So here we are with Syria, a foreign policy quagmire that has gone on pretty much unabated for six years or so and we’d be naive to think that Trump has an actual plan to bring about a resolution to this seemingly intractable problem.  But I digress.

Back to the Xi-Trump meetings in Florida and the two of them enjoying their Dover sole and steak dinner as missiles were fired at a Syrian air base. It’s curious that this meeting, which was built up quite a bit in the press in spite of all of the other distractions facing Trump, turned out to fade quickly from the front pages of the news. And most of the stories about the meeting were in relation to the Syrian missile strike trying to understand how it would impact US-China relations. It’s clear the chemical weapons Assad used were inhumane and gruesome, but the reaction from a man who earlier in the week said getting rid of Assad was not a priority and as far back as 2013 advised Obama not to bomb Syria seems slightly off. Even attributing it to his unpredictability and penchant for chaos is not enough of an explanation. I think the attack was partially a response to Assad’s chemical attack, but I do think it was a way to both send a message to Xi that he could do the same in North Korea and more importantly (and perhaps a bit cynically), did it to boost his standing among those calling for a more robust response to Syria and already incredibly critical of Trump. Trump is a man who craves popularity and doesn’t particularly care from who he receives it. He is a man who attacks unfavorable polls as fake news precisely because he cares way too much about those polls.  So now with his popularity plummeting and the support he relied on not doing much to boost those numbers, he’s ready to try something to boost the top-line number so he doesn’t go down as the most unpopular president this early on in their tenure. Once again, I get distracted.

So where does that leave this meeting between the leaders of two of the most consequential countries on the planet. We got a pledge to do something within 100 days about the trade deficit, which is about as meaningful to long-term policy as China sending us another panda for the National Zoo. While cute and a good sound bite, it does nothing to constructively deal with the issues affecting relations between the two countries. We heard nothing about North Korea, human rights, Hong Kong, the South China Sea, climate change, or any of the other myriad issues that the countries could possibly work on. Perhaps Xi got a nice photo-op with the palm trees in the background and Trump showed a bit more respect for decorum as he greeted Xi, including an actual handshake, but no tangible progress was made in dealing with problems that are only going to grow in magnitude. I guess it’s not so much of a surprise when many senior roles related to Asia remain unfilled and even when Obama was operating at full capacity, he was unable to do much to move the dial when it came to China and Asia. Unfortunately Americans are not paying enough attention to this part of the world at a time when it’s ever more important that they do and we have a government woefully underprepared to give it the attention is needs and deserves.  It may take a crisis of epic proportions to get everyone to wake up and take the requisite notice, which could be more frightening than anything we’ve seen yet.

China is allegedly building structures on artificial islands in the South China Sea that could potentially hold long-range surface-to-air missiles.  If this turns out to be true, this move is another step forward by China to lay claim to the South China Sea while simultaneously serving as another poke at the U.S. to see what they’re really committed to doing to ensure the South China Sea remains open and free.  However, China’s most recent alleged provocation is symptomatic of a bigger problem when it comes to the U.S.’ engagement with Asia.  During the Obama years, while he and others in his administration made much about a “pivot” to Asia or a re-balancing toward the region, the words were often much more substantive than the actions undertaken by his government.  Now we have a president who can barely articulate a single policy, let alone an entire grand strategy.

Trump’s idea of policies are not-so-pithy one-liners like branding China a currency manipulator or claiming that Japan does not pay enough for U.S. security.  His actions are meant more to rile up other parties and hew much more closely to the reality show theatrics with which he’s more comfortable , whether it was fielding a call from Taiwan’s president in the aftermath of the election and holding out as long as possible before re-affirming the “One China” policy that undergirded U.S.-China relations since early 1970s. North Korea tests a long-range missile and Trump decides that during dinner at his private club is the best time and place to plot the U.S.’ reaction to such a provocation.  Even the theatrics are of a low-budget variety.

The only action Trump seems to have followed through on was his executive order pulling the U.S. out of the TPP and effectively ceding to China the power to write the rules of commerce for Asia and most likely the rest of the world.  Abdicating a voice in such a crucial policy sphere that is vital to continued American prosperity is going to have the opposite effect of making America great.  Rather than keeping its seat at the head of the table and crafting the evolving rules of global trade, America is going to have to play by the rules set by others that may not be as advantageous to our long-term prosperity as those rules we were able to lay out in the TPP.  Putting aside the merits of the TPP for a second, what was most important about that agreement was continued American leadership in coming up with Version 2.0 of the rules and frameworks that have taken the world to this point from the aftermath of WWII.  If Trump has his way, it won’t only be the TPP, but NATO, our vital alliances with Japan, South Korea, and Australia, and even the EU which has more often than not been a trusted and intellectually equal partner spurring us to do better on many matters of global importance.

We are at an inflection point in Asia and the rest of the world where a grand strategies with  far-reaching and enlightened thinking is needed.  Unfortunately, very little coming out of Washington these days seems all that grand except perhaps that atrium in Trump’s DC hotel.

In recent days, Vice President Pence and others from the Trump administration, including Secretary of State Tillerson and Defense Secretary Mattis have made the rounds in Europe reassuring our allies that the U.S. stands with them against Russia and other threats to the West.  Why was such a tour necessary so early on in the new administration?  It’s because President Trump has been doing everything he can do to stir fear in Europe that the U.S. is prepared to abandon its commitments that have undergirded peace and prosperity in the region since the end of WWII.  It’s problematic that you have the leader of the free world tweeting and giving speeches expressing adoration for Putin and his Russia while undercutting allies who have stood by America’s side for over 70 years.  Then you have his supposedly loyal lieutenants doing the equivalent of an apology tour to reassure those same allies that nothing is going to change, even with a megalomaniac in the White House.  Whose take on the future should we trust?

It’s naive to think that the triumvirate of Pence, Mattis, and Tillerson matters more than what Trump says or tweets.  In Trump’s first month in office, it’s been clear that anyone with a shred of reason or maturity is quickly sidelined.  Pence was kept in the dark for two weeks by the President and his people that Flynn had lied to him about discussing sanctions with Russian Ambassador Kislyak and only learned about it from The Washington Post.  Tillerson was not included in White House meetings with Netanyahu that were supposedly being led by Jared Kushner, who we all know is extremely well-versed in international affairs.  And then there is Mattis, the oft-cited grown-up in the room who is supposed to be the voice of reason in a Trump administration.  He seems to be more a show pony having already been to Asia and Europe to reassure our closest allies that nothing is going to change in these alliances even as Trump says and does the opposite of what Mattis is saying.  What happened in the aftermath of North Korea’s missile test except an open-air discussion during dinner at Mar-a-Lago?  Nothing.  While the theater of these three men reassuring allies is well-executed, it’s a stretch to believe that any of them hold any real sway with Trump who seems hell-bent on doing his own thing.

I don’t doubt the sincerity of anything Pence, Mattis, and Tillerson have said to our allies. However, I doubt that their boss shares their sentiments or cares to listen to what they have to tell him.  That is what scares me the most – the lack of a coherent and convincing foreign policy in the early days of the Trump presidency.  It seems that the same man who wanted to keep ISIS guessing as to his amazing plan to eradicate them also wants to keep our allies guessing how committed we are to supporting the Western world as we know it.