Thayer Consultancy Background Briefing

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Trump’s Foreign Policy on the
First Anniversary of his Election

Carlyle A. Thayer
October 29, 2017

On 6 November, the first anniversary of his election as president, Donald Trump will
be in Seoul to meet with President Moon Jae-in. Trump will be in Tokyo the day
before where he will have met with newly re-elected Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Trump will provide reassurance of U.S. support in opposing North Korea’s ballistic
missiles and nuclear tests.
This is Trump’s first visit to Asia as president of the United States. He will also visit
China, Vietnam and the Philippines. Trump’s words and actions will carry
considerable weight in the eyes of regional leaders: can he be trusted? can his
reassurances be taken for granted? or will his brand of “chopping and changing”
policy add to strategic uncertainty” and become the new normal?
Will November 2017 live in infamy as the moment the United States ceded
leadership in the Asia-Pacific Region to China because President Trump lacks the
experience and conceptual ability to think strategically rather than transactionally?
Trump’s Visit to Asia
According to Administration spokespersons, President Trump’s visit has two main
strategic objectives. The first is to reassure U.S. allies and strategic partners that the
United States remains steadfast in its opposition to North Korea’s ballistic missile
and nuclear weapons tests. Trump will also lobby China to add further pressure on
North Korea to cease and desist from its nuclear proliferation program. This is only
likely to have partial success and Xi, now emboldened by his re-election, will likely
exact a quid pro quo.
The second objective of Trump’s Asia trip is to demonstrate that the United States
will continue to support the region’s prime multilateral institutions, APEC and
ASEAN. Curiously, the two White House media statements on Trump’s Asian trip did
not specifically mention the EAS but referred to ASEAN-related institutions.
Media reports that President Donald Trump has cut short his visit to Manila and will
skip the leaders-led East Asia Summit (EAS). This is an act of political vandalism. Xi
Jinping can now stand up and address the EAS with his arm resting of Trump’s empty
seat. The United States claims the U.S. is a resident power, China claims it is an
outside power. Trump’s actions will speak louder than his words.
Assessing a Year in Office
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What has Trump accomplished in the field of foreign relations after nearly a year in
office? One clear accomplishment is that he has generated unprecedented strategic
uncertainty across the globe with respect to U.S. leadership in world affairs. Trump
has flip flopped on U.S. commitments to NATO, and he has withdrawn the United
States from the Trans Pacific Partnership, the Paris climate change agreement and
has shown disdain for multilateral trade agreements. No clear national strategy has
emerged only a series of reactive policies and transactional engagements.
Trump has pursued three general foreign policy objectives: defeating the Islamic
State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS), opposing nuclear proliferation in North Korea, and
renegotiating free trade agreements, particularly the North American Free Trade
Agreement (NAFTA).
President Trump typically has taken more credit than he is due for Islamic State’s
dénouement. Trump points his changing the rules of engagement and giving U.S.
military commanders greater authority to prosecute the war on international
terrorism. Islamic State has lost much of the territory on which it based its Caliphate
and suffered a major defeat with the loss of Raqqa.
If Trump can take the lion’s share of credit for defeating Islamic State in eight
months can he pull off a similar success against the Taliban?
What seems evident is President Trump is stressing the importance of military power
to defeat the Islamic State while no clear strategy has emerged that weaves together
all the elements of national power to defeat international terrorism and religious
extremism around the world. It is too early to pass judgment on Trump’s war in
Afghanistan.
Trump’s attempt to bring peace to the Middle East stalled immediately as it was
launched. Son-in-law Jared Kushner saw, went and failed to conquer Arab leaders.
Trump policy has exacerbated tensions between Qatar and its neighbors, especially
Saudi Arabia. The Syrian regime is propped up by Russia a country that Trump says it
will be nice to get along with. That could only happen in Trump recognized Syria as
Moscow’s sphere of influence.
Trump’s denunciation of the multi-party Iran nuclear deal carries a high risk that U.S.
policy will be counter-productive in the long-run. Trump’s anti-Iran stance is aimed
at halting Iran’s destabilizing behavior across the Middle East (not included in the
Iran nuclear ac cord); it is unclear how trashing the nuclear deal curtail Iran’s
regional objectives. If Trump continues to threaten Iran it may move to acquire
nuclear weapons in response; like North Korea is will be “put up or shut up.”
President Trump can claim credit for gaining UN Security Council resolutions
imposing tough sanctions on North Korea and for rallying allies and elements of the
international community behind UN sanctions. Trump, however, has not given
sanctions a chance to take hold. Trump doggedly espouses the view, as do his
relevant Cabinet secretaries, that China can put more pressure on Pyongyang and
eventually Kim Jong-un will step back. Trump’s supporters laud his provocative
comments to unleash fire and fury against North Korea and Trump’s tweets
derisively aimed at the “rocket man.” Trump’s critics worry that this war of words
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between Trump and Kim will lead one or the other to miscalculate and stumble into
armed conflict. How is Secretary Tillerson expected to give diplomacy a chance?
Although it can be argued that the jury is still out on Trump –v- North Korea, it is very
likely North Korea will emerge as a de facto nuclear state.
Trump’s disdain for free trade agreements, bilateral or otherwise, has opened the
door to President Xi Jinping to take the high road as an exponent of globalization and
an opponent of protectionism. President Trump and his Secretary of State Rex
Tillerson continue to argue that there are plenty of arrows in Trump’s economic
quiver to bring a recalcitrant China to ground. At the informal summit in Mar-a-Lago
between Trump and Xi, the two leaders agreed to bilateral discussion on trade and
economic issues. This has made little progress. Nonetheless the two leaders have
been in telephone contact which is a positive sign. It is premature to make any
assessment of the outcome other than “watch this space.”
Trump has achieved a measure of success in bilateral diplomacy but it has not been
all his own doing. Japan’s Prime Minister Abe was quick off the mark to visit Trump
in Washington and then confer at Mar-a-Lago.
To his credit, Trump has received the Prime Ministers of Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand
and Singapore in The White House in separate bilateral official visits. His invitation to
President Duterte of the Philippines has not been taken up though the two are
scheduled to meet in Manila at the tail end of Trump’s Asian trip.
President Trump has overcome an initial rocky relationship with Australia’s Prime
Minister Malcolm Turnbull and the two countries are working effectively to address
a range of security issues including defeating Islamic State and halting proliferation
on the North Korean peninsula.
Bottom Line
The Trump Administration is pursuing a transactional foreign policy bereft of any
overarching strategy. The Trump Administration was required to present Congress a
National Security Strategy within 150 of coming into office. This deadline has been
missed. A National Security Strategy may be drawn up in the first half of 2018 at the
earliest.
There are glaring inconsistencies in Trump’s foreign policy. His attack on the Iran
nuclear deal and kicking it to Congress with the threat of withdrawal must be
squared with pressure on North Korea to come to the negotiating table. Why would
Kim Jong-un agree to let Trump be the sole arbiter of a nuclear deal?
The United States has adopted a reactive Northeast Asia First foreign policy in East
Asia, mainly focused on North Korea. Southeast Asia is an orphan by comparison.
Trump approved a new plan for freedom of navigation operational patrols (FONOPs)
and his Secretary of State rails against China’s violations of a rules based order. How
are these two related? In other words how will FONOPs influence China’s
militarization in the South China Sea?
There is no concerted U.S. strategy towards ASEAN a key regional association in
Southeast Asia. Trump has dealt individually with four heads of government. But he
has made no move to exert leadership over regional economic integration. If State
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Department funding is cut the U.S. capability to deal with non-traditional security
challenges will dwindle and U.S. influence will decline.
Trumps’ combative polarization of American society, and the rancor of the discourse
in Washington cuts the foundations from under the appeal of U.S. soft power – the
ability to attract others to be more like the United States. Xi Jinping has moved into
this void with a condemnation of western liberal values and offering China as a
model for other states to follow.
Trump’s approach to human rights has been episodic. He congratulates President
Duterte for his war on drugs on the one hand while the State Department derides
Myanmar for is suppression of the Rohingya ethnic minority on the other. The White
House has been silent about Prime Minister Hun Sen’s dismantlement of liberal
democracy in Cambodia and his evisceration of the opposition Cambodia National
Rescue Party. There is no discernable U.S. strategy or leadership on this important
front.
After one year in office, President Trump will visit Southeast Asia. He is scheduled to
address the APEC CEO Forum in Da Nang. His visits to Hanoi and Manila offer a
unique chance to promote a Trump strategy to keep the United States engaged in
the region diplomatically, politically, economically and militarily. The word rebalance
may have been dropped from the lexicon of American diplomacy but some concept
must be conjured up by Donald Trump to inspire regional states to follow America’s
lead If Trump continues to portray the United States as a victim of Chinese chicanery
President Trump will have effectively passed the baton of leadership to Xi Jinping in
the eyes of Southeast Asian states and signaled that the post-war era of U.S. primacy
is rapidly drawing to a close. It does the United States little good to outmatch China
in military power if there is no leadership and strategy to use all elements of national
power to bolster a rules-based regional and global order in concert with allies,
partners and like-minded states.

Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “Trump’s Foreign Policy on the First
Anniversary of his Election,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, October 29, 2017.
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Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and
other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially
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