How Trump’s incoherent foreign policy promotes uncertainty in the Asia-Pacific and risks disaster
Will Saetren says American foreign policy, especially in the Asia-Pacific, depends on sending clear messages to allies and adversaries alike, and the unclear signals coming from the Trump administration could have catastrophic consequences
Last weekend, Donald Trump celebrated the one-year anniversary of his presidency. The 45th president of the United States entered office vowing to get tough with China, cut better deals and reassert America’s position as a Pacific power.
But one year later, Trump’s incoherent foreign policy has brought the US closer to “bending the knee” on the global stage than since the second world war. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Asia-Pacific, where Trump has left the strategic stability of the region, carefully crafted over decades, in tatters.
Strategic stability exists when competing nations have a high degree of certainty regarding actions of potential adversaries. There is an understanding that certain actions cause specific reactions, thereby minimising risk of conflict, caused by a miscalculation, which could escalate beyond control.
For decades, American power and prestige has been the bedrock of strategic stability. Past presidents went to great lengths to assure America’s allies and draw unambiguous red lines for adversaries. In one year, Trump has taken a sledgehammer to these policies and shaken strategic stability to its core.
One of Trump’s first moves upon taking office was to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would have united countries representing 40 per cent of the world’s GDP. The agreement, signed by Trump’s predecessor but not yet ratified, would have benefited America by almost every measure. Most importantly, allies in the Pacific saw the TPP as demonstrating American commitment and a counter to China’s rising influence. As former US secretary of defence Ash Carter aptly put it, “passing TPP is as important to me as another aircraft carrier”. But Trump was more than willing to ignore the evidence and tear up “a bad deal” for no other discernible reason than it had his predecessor’s fingerprints on it.
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As America surrenders its leadership role through self-inflicted wounds, its allies are undoubtedly asking themselves whether the US can be relied on to come to their aid if it cannot help itself. It is becoming increasingly clear the answer is “no”.
Trump has threatened to make South Korea pay for the recent deployment of missile defence batteries to that country, and previously suggested that both South Korea and Japan develop their own nuclear arsenals. Even Trump’s signature “America First” policy suggests that the US is willing to selfishly abandon its allies.
In August, US Senator Lindsey Graham went on record saying that, “If there’s going to be a war to stop [Kim Jong-un], it will be over there. If thousands die, they’re going to die over there. They’re not going to die here.” Earlier this month, Foreign Policy published an op-ed bluntly asserting that civilian deaths in Seoul resulting from an attack on North Korea would “largely be self-inflicted”.
The Trump administration’s failure to push back on this narrative is damning. Silence causes uncertainty, and uncertainty is the enemy of strategic stability.
Perhaps the most alarming sign of the dysfunction is the president’s ability to undermine the men and women of the State Department responsible for implementing America’s foreign policy.
On December 12, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that the US was prepared to enter diplomatic talks with North Korea without preconditions. “And then we can begin to lay out a map, a road map of what we might be willing to work towards,” he said. This was a stark departure from Washington’s past insistence that unless North Korea was willing to accept denuclearisation as the premise for negotiations, there was nothing to talk about.
Just three hours after Tillerson’s speech, the White House abruptly issued a statement directly contradicting what he had just said. The next day, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert effectively stabbed her boss in the back, tweeting: “Our policy on #DPRK has not changed. Diplomacy is our top priority through our maximum pressure campaign. We remain open to dialogue when North Korea is willing to conduct a serious & credible dialogue on the peaceful denuclearization, but that time is not now.”
It is hard to overstate the significance of this. Although Tillerson’s humiliation barely made a ripple in the maelstrom of news engulfing Trump’s presidency, consider this: the secretary of state’s purpose is to communicate the policies of the US to allies and adversaries alike. When Tillerson travels abroad to secure the interests of the US, he can only do so if those negotiating with him believe he speaks on behalf of the president. It is becoming abundantly clear that he speaks for no one. Tillerson himself admits he has his staff print out Trump’s tweets and retroactively instructs them try to figure out how to “use it” to make policy.
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The abasement of America’s secretary of state has real-life implications. Allies who no longer have faith in America’s security guarantees are more likely to take matters into their own hands. In 2010, when the South Korean warship Cheonan was torpedoed by North Korea, the US worked behind the scenes to convince Seoul not to respond with force. If a similar situation arose today, it might play out very differently, sparking a regional conflict that the US would be dragged into.
Perhaps more important than the perspectives of America’s allies are the interpretations of its adversaries.
Mutual understanding between competing nations is central to strategic stability but, for that to exist, effective signalling is crucial. For decades, America’s intentions, interests and red lines have been clearly drawn and communicated, but that is no longer the case. One year into the Trump presidency, key mid-level positions in America’s foreign policy bureaucracy remain unfilled. This, combined with Trump’s erratic tweets, disregard for truth and degradation of his secretary of state, creates a recipe for disaster.
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If adversaries like North Korea cannot accurately discern the interests the US is willing to go to war over, they are more likely to make a miscalculation that could spiral out of control. Kim Jong-un has threatened to fire a missile in the direction of the US territory of Guam, and conduct the atmospheric detonation of a warhead over the Pacific. Thus far, North Korea has resisted doing so, probably calculating that the risk of a US retaliatory strike is too great. However, that calculus could rapidly change if the war of words between Kim and Trump escalates.
The risk of miscalculation is equally great or greater when dealing with strategic competitors like China. Ambiguous signalling by the US could cause China to overplay its hand in volatile areas like the South China Sea and cross a red line the US is, in fact, willing to enforce. A minor confrontation could turn into a high-stakes stand-off where both sides find themselves unable to retreat without catastrophic loss of face. At that point, all it would take is for the wrong person to shoot at the wrong people at the wrong time to ignite a cycle of escalation.
As Trump enters his second year, it is difficult to assess the extent of the damage that his presidency has done. There is one indicator however, that is particularly alarming. Earlier this month Pope Francis, when asked by reporters if he was worried about the possibility of nuclear war, responded: “I think we are at the very limit. I am really afraid of this. One accident is enough to precipitate things.” One accident is all it would take to bring human civilisation as we know it to an end. Thanks to Trump, we are now closer to that precipice than we have been since the end of the cold war.
Will Saetren is a research associate at the Institute for China-America Studies, where he specialises in nuclear weapons policy