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.

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.