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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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.