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.