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.

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 was fortunate to catch some of Sen. Hilary Clinton’s confirmation hearing live this past Tuesday and it made me really happy to see her back in the limelight and displaying her impressive knowledge of world affairs.  After the long and drawn-out primary battle between her and President-elect Obama, it was really nice to hear her on the same page as her former rival and her poise and confidence displayed during the hearings gave me hope that she can truly begin to rebuild our image around the world.

While I recognize the number of trouble spots around the world seems to grow daily, especially with the latest Middle East conflict thrown into the mix, I was disappointed not to hear more from Sen. Clinton or the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the future of U.S. – China relations.  I could chalk my disappointment up to a bias from spending the past five months in a classroom with Chinese students whose overriding concern about the incoming Obama administration was how he and his team would handle U.S. – China relations.  However, my disappointment with the lack of vision for U.S. – China relations goes back to the days when I was an undergraduate at Yale, where I had the good fortune to study modern Chinese history with Jonathan Spence and China’s market economy with Nicholas Lardy.  In much of the scholarly reading I’ve done related to China over the last decade, I was always struck by how short-sighted and black and white much of the literature has been.  Our own government’s policies towards China seem to mirror this reactionary and binary approach to U.S. – China relations.  To be over-simplistic, policy responses usually fall along the lines of military/human rights issues are bad and anything that allows American companies to profit from China’s rapid growth are good.  Thus, much of the talk about U.S. – China relations still revolves around Tibet, devaluing the yuan, trade disputes, and human rights violations. One possible exception to this approach were the Six Party talks concerning North Korea’s nuclear capabilities where the U.S. and China engaged as equals and were working towards a common, longer-term goal.  I am not saying that the aforementioned issues are not important.  They are, but the approach to dealing with them is often couched in a U.S. reaction to some policy decision rather than the crafting of a grand strategy framework laying out the approach to U.S. – China relations going forward.

In her statement at the confirmation hearing, Sen. Clinton mentioned China five times, two of those five times China was mentioned in the context of either Russia or other large emerging economies like India, Brazil, South Africa, and Indonesia.  Here is her most substantive comment regarding China is as follows:

We want a positive and cooperative relationship with China, one where we deepen and strengthen our ties on a number of issues, and candidly address differences where they persist.  But this a not one-way effort – much of what we will do depends on the choices China makes about its future at home and abroad. With both Russia and China, we should work together on vital security and economic issues like terrorism, proliferation, climate change, and reforming financial markets.

I agree wholeheartedly with Sen. Clinton’s words of cooperation and goodwill, but what was missing from that statement was a commitment to developing a long-term framework for U.S. – China relations.  I just hope that soon-to-be Secretary Clinton and her team, including Kurt Campbell as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs begin to map out a proactive approach as opposed to a reactive approach to U.S. – China relations in the coming years.  While China is still considered a developing country, it is really becoming too big to ignore and the best approach going forward is going to be to figure out how to build a true partnership between the two countries.  

Best to of luck to Hillary and her team at State.