The Trump administration’s Asia policy is the worst of all possible worlds.
- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
To a casual observer, Donald Trump’s invitation to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to visit the White House might appear to be a classic example of hard-nosed realpolitik. Never mind Duterte’s murderous anti-drug campaign, his boasting of having personally killed alleged criminals, or his other questionable statements, all of which have alarmed human rights advocates. The more important issue, some might think, is that Duterte is the leader of an important U.S. ally. From this perspective, it looks like Trump is simply subordinating moral concerns to strategic imperatives (as all of his predecessors have done) and pursuing an essentially realist policy toward this critical region.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
For realists, the key to U.S. security is maintaining dominance in the Western Hemisphere and preventing any peer competitor from dominating the vital power centers of Europe or Asia or controlling key energy resources in the Persian Gulf. Apart from the United States itself, there is only one potential “regional hegemon” in the world today: China.
Accordingly, a realist policy in Asia would first and foremost seek to prevent China from consolidating a dominant position in Asia and eventually persuading its neighbors to abandon their present security ties with the United States. Were that to occur, the United States would be unable to sustain a major military presence in the Western Pacific or Southeast Asia, and China would be a de facto regional hegemon. Over time, China would be increasingly free to project power into other areas of the world, much as America does today, and maybe even try to establish security ties here in the Western Hemisphere.
It follows that a realist approach in Asia calls for the United States to keep a wary eye on China and manage a sometimes delicate balancing coalition of Asian partners. This task is a tricky one that requires consistency, prudent judgment, and smart diplomacy, as well as credible military power. The latter quality is still abundant; the former, not so much.
Consider what Trump has done so far. He started out by taking an imprudent congratulatory phone call from the president of Taiwan and questioning the well-established “One China” policy, only to backtrack a few days later. He abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership on his third day in office, thereby destroying a key institution that would have bound a number of Asian countries more tightly to the United States and undermining local leaders who had spent political capital of their own in order to reach an agreement. He berated Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on a “get-acquainted” phone call, reinforcing growing Australian doubts about the merits of their long association with the United States.
On the Korean Peninsula, Trump has jeopardized relations with another key ally by saying South Korea would have to pay for the controversial THAAD anti-missile defense system that is now being deployed there and by suggesting the existing free trade deal between the two countries has to be renegotiated or abrogated. The Defense Department quickly corrected him and said the United States would pay for THAAD as agreed, but these episodes hardly reinforced confidence in Washington’s consistency or judgment. Trump has also raised the prospect of war with North Korea — which could have disastrous effects on the South — yet followed that up by suggesting, bizarrely, that he would be “honored” to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Coming on the heels of that misplaced aircraft carrier, is it any wonder South Koreans have doubts about following the U.S. lead (whatever it might turn out to be)?
It gets worse: Instead of seeing China as a peer competitor whose rising power needs to be checked, Trump has been kissing up to Beijing in the hope of securing its help on North Korea and a number of issues. There’s nothing inherently wrong with collaborating with Beijing when our national interests (as opposed to Trump’s business interests) align, but such an approach inevitably raises doubts in the minds of China’s neighbors. It also reinforces the perception that Beijing is calling the shots in Asia. If that were in fact the case, why would anyone there want to remain closely tied to the United States?
Even Trump’s impulsive outreach to Duterte shows that it is still amateur hour at the White House. One can make a pragmatic case for trying to smooth a strained relationship with a key ally; the problem is that Trump did not consult anyone about it and didn’t know if Duterte was likely to accept when he extended the invitation. Here’s a pro tip: An invitation to visit the White House is a serious matter that needs to be vetted beforehand and agreed to by both parties before it is made public. As it happens, Duterte responded by saying he might be too busy to pay a visit, thereby making Trump look foolish and desperate.
Needless to say, this entire approach is the antithesis of foreign-policy realism. Realists sees international politics as a deadly serious business, especially when dealing with critical regions and potential peer competitors. Realism focuses on preserving favorable balances of power, managing critical alliances adroitly, and above all acting in ways that allow both friends and foes to tailor their actions to ours. A country whose leader understood this wouldn’t be relying on an understaffed State Department, an unqualified first daughter and son-in-law, and wouldn’t be trying to manage key relations via an uncensored Twitter account. Trump’s approach to foreign policy would make a great sitcom, opéra bouffe, or a Marx Brothers movie, but it is both disastrous and demeaning for the United States.
Where we seem to be headed, alas, is the worst of all possible worlds. Trump is gradually being captured, co-opted, and contained by the foreign-policy establishment (aka the “Blob), and the radical restructuring he promised during the campaign is gradually being discarded along with goofballs like Michael Flynn and Sebastian Gorka. The result? The United States will continue to pursue an overly ambitious foreign policy and continue to try to manage events in nearly every corner of the world, much as we have for the past 25 years. But instead of having serious people in charge, we’ll now be doing it with an inexperienced, impulsive, and inept skipper at the helm.
This unhappy situation may give people like me plenty to write about, but it isn’t good for the country and it sure as hell ain’t realism. Those who wish America ill could hardly ask for more.
Photo credit: CHIP SOMODEVILLA/Getty Images