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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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.