If exceeding low expectations was the mark of a successful presidency, Donald Trump would be carving a place in the White House pantheon. Political enemies and a generally hostile press have so far congratulated him on not overturning the rule of law, becoming “smaller and more conventional,” not believing “all the stuff he said,” having “looked like a president,” not starting a trade war with China, not causing “mass rioting” in the Middle East, not rubbing “salt into the wounds” of mass-shooting victims and, most vitally, not getting impeached.
So, now that he’s returned from 12 days and five countries without bringing on the apocalypse, let’s stop grading on a curve. For the difficulties he faced, he had only himself to blame: pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, directing juvenile taunts at North Korean dictator Kim Il Jong, accusing Japan and South Korea of freeloading off America’s security guarantee, and insisting Americans have allowed “China to rape our country.”
So, how’d he do? To discuss what happened — and what didn’t — I had a talk with somebody who’s seen a fair number of presidents make their way across the Pacific: Joe Nye of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. In addition to his academic work, Nye was a deputy undersecretary of state for nonproliferation in the Jimmy Carter administration, while under Bill Clinton he was the assistant secretary of defense for international security and headed the National Intelligence Council.
But what Nye is perhaps best known for is coining the term “soft power,” which has been described as the ability of a nation to shape the actions of others through appeal and attraction rather than coercion. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our discussion:
Tobin Harshaw: Before we get to Trump’s Asian adventure, I want to talk about his first major trip, to the Middle East and Europe last spring. Many were relieved that Trump made it through that without any major gaffes. Do you think he accomplished the feat again?
Joseph Nye: I would say yes. There were no major gaffes, and he did attend several quite important conferences. And the fact that an American president is present is in itself a major political signal to the region. So I think one has to give him credit for showing up and for not making any significant mistakes. And beyond that, for reaffirming the importance of the region in America’s national interest.
TH: To stay on that previous trip, a lot of people felt that the effusive praise he laid on the Saudis was seen as giving them a green light for everything that has ensued. This includes Mohammed bin Salman rising to crown prince and now jailing his rivals, the move along with the United Arab Emirates to isolate Qatar, and now the meddling in Lebanese politics. Are you in agreement that Trump helped set all that in motion, or do you think that was coincidental?
JN: Well, I think the rise of MbS would have happened without Trump. But I also think that MbS and his colleagues read Trump’s endorsement as assurance that they were going to get American backing, and that led them to take a number of steps, some of which were prudent and some of which were imprudent.
TH: Moving ahead to the Asia trip, then. Ordinarily when a president sets out on a major tour like this, there is — or at least we hope there is — an agenda that’s aimed at backing up an overarching strategy. Do you think Trump had either of those?
JN: Well, it’s difficult to discern, because he hasn’t articulated a strategy in any broad sense. But he has, I think, been making a statement by describing the region as the “Indo-Pacific.” In this he has done something quite useful, which is to draw India and Australia into the Asian balance of power.
And I think that’s important if you look at the rise of China and many people’s belief that China is going to “own the region.” That view neglects the fact that India, Japan, Australia as well as smaller states like Vietnam don’t want to be owned by China. And that makes them natural allies or at least makes them more aligned in their goals with the U.S. And I think Trump’s description of the region in the terms that used helps to make that clear. So that’s a plus.
On the minus side, he has backed away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and has offered no alternative other than a series of bilateral trade arrangements, some of which have promise and others which don’t. I was in Japan recently and I didn’t detect a great deal of enthusiasm for a bilateral U.S.-Japan relationship. Trump has left the field open for others, particularly China.
TH: The first speech he gave was at a U.S. air base in Japan, where he warned that “no one — no dictator, no regime and no nation — should underestimate, ever, American resolve.” Now, he never actually mentioned North Korea specifically. But the subtext was clear. Do you think challenging Kim Jong Un with that kind of rhetoric in his own backyard is going to needlessly inflame things?
JN: No. I think actually it’s useful to have a statement like that made in Japan, and it also goes beyond just the North Korean issue. During the 2016 campaign, Trump talked about letting Japan take care of its own defenses and maybe even going nuclear. And he backed away from that after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited him in February. But with a country like Japan, which has tied its whole security policy to its alliance with the U.S., you have to continually reaffirm that America has both the capacity and the will to defend them.
TH: And yet when he later gave a speech to a Japanese audience, he basically challenged them to start buying more U.S. arms — implying that this was related both to protecting themselves and also to the trade deficit. Do you think those two issues should be linked in the sense of it seeming like we’re making our security guarantees conditional on the trade relationship?
JN: No, I think the president has basically weakened the security guarantees by making excessive linkages to trade. But that’s been typical of his approach to trade and Asia. Remember, even before he took office he flirted with the idea of tying Taiwan to trade. And when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited him at Mar a Lago, he again tied trade to North Korea. We haven’t seen that kind of crude linkage of trade and security in American foreign policy in the past. It’s always there in the background, but that sort of salesman’s approach, real-estate developer’s approach, to security is I think unwise.
TH: His next stop was Korea, and it was interesting that after that tough military rhetoric in Japan he kind of soft-pedaled it while addressing the South Koreans. He insisted that the North Koreans should “come to the table and make a deal.” Do you think that was sincere?
JN: The Trump administration seems to have had a two-track policy, which is to threaten force and at the same time to see about negotiations. And there have been quiet negotiations. And Trump has tried to make these negotiations more fruitful by reminding North Korea that all options are on the table. And South Korean President Moon Jae In has been very worried about that, because the South Koreans fear they’ll be the first recipients of a counterattack. And so I think his performance in Seoul was essentially a reassurance to Moon.
TH: Given how unbelievably awful that counterattack would be, it seems almost unthinkable that the U.S. would take military action first. But do you personally think that there anything on the horizon to give optimism that diplomacy can work, especially given Chinese attitudes?
JN: I think it’s a low probability but not zero. I was at a meeting in Japan where a number of American and Japanese experts gave their subjective assessments of what the probabilities were. I think the feeling was that the chances were about one in five that there would be some use of force — I don’t mean a big war, I mean an effort to have a limited strike — and probably also about a one-in-five chance that the Chinese, fearing there would be a disruptive use of force, might put additional pressure on the North Koreans to make their de facto freeze a real freeze in terms of further testing of nuclear missiles. So, two possibilities, neither zero. But I wouldn’t bet my house on either one.
TH: On his next stop, the Chinese gave him the royal treatment. And in return, Trump lavished praise on Xi and stayed very much away from human rights issues. Do you think he was just showing good manners for his hosts? Or are the critics right in saying that he fawns over dictators and has abandoned traditional U.S. values?
JN: I think the Trump administration would probably claim that they do these things quietly — the human rights issues — but there is not much evidence that he did it. I was disturbed by the fact that it looked like flattery was replacing policy in both directions. But whether that was a cover for private conversations — let’s say on North Korea — that really moved the ball or not we don’t know. But from what we know publicly, I think the China trip looks like a missed opportunity.
TH: Likewise, later he met with Filipino President Roderigo Duterte, who has been running this brutal campaign of executions of alleged terrorists and criminals. And again, Trump walked around the human rights issues. How do you think the rest of the world sees this?
JN: It’s true that America derives a great deal of soft power from standing for certain values. And if you look at the public opinion polls, and if you look at the index of soft power that’s published by Portland, the British consultancy, the American position has slipped under Trump. Can it recover? The answer is yes, because a great deal of the soft power of a country is produced by its civil society, not just by the government. But when a president does not reaffirm values, that can be costly in terms of our overall power portfolio. It doesn’t mean that you have to beat another country over the head to do it, but when it’s absent, it’s noticed.
TH: We talked a little bit about trade before. In Vietnam, that was the focus of the speech. A lot of people saw it as sort of a throwback to the America First rhetoric of the campaign. In terms of abandoning TPP and trying to establish these bilateral trade deals, are you as worried as others that it’s simply playing into China’s hands?
JN: Well I think it has given Xi an impressive opening. TPP was an opportunity for the U.S. to set a higher standard in terms of trade arrangements, and by pulling out of TPP we pull our influence out of the region in terms of broad trade standards. I think the interesting question is whether the so-called TPP 11 — the original 12 nations minus the U.S. and of which Japan has taken the lead — will be able to set some of these standards. And will it in a sense keep a seat warm for United States in the future?
TH: You were quoted recently in a Japanese newspaper saying, “the nativist, xenophobic nature of a number of Trump’s statements have already had a negative effect on American soft power in Asia and elsewhere.” Do you think the trip did anything to repair that damage?
JN: Well, I don’t think it did much to repair the damage in the sense that those statements are still there on the record. And I think they have undercut American soft power as proven by the results of Pew polls and others. I think we’ve got the same situation as before the trip.
TH: Let’s go back to the bigger picture. The Obama administration talked up a “Pivot to Asia” that was supposed to have lots of dimensions — the military, diplomatic, commercial, etc. I’ve got to say, as somebody who follows these things for a living, I never really figured out what the pivot was or whether it changed much of anything. Do you disagree?
JN: I think there was a good deal of marketing strategy or sloganeering in the term “pivot.” And notice that the Obama administration also used the term “rebalancing” toward Asia. They were trying to impress the Asians with the fact that resources that were lavished on the Middle East in the George W. Bush administration would now be spent more in Asia. They set a goal that 60 percent of our Navy would be deployed in the Pacific. So one has to distinguish the advertising from the reality.
But at least Obama did have, with TPP, a very substantive core to making the U.S. not just a naval power but also an economic and trade power in the region. And I think, as we’ve already said, that that’s missing now, that the economic component of that strategy seems to have vanished.
TH: The military component, however, seems to be taking shape spectacularly with the three carrier strike groups doing exercises off the Korean peninsula at the same time the trip was happening. If that is Trump’s military pivot, how would you complement it with a diplomatic pivot?
JN: Well I don’t know if you’re going to be able to keep three carriers there for a long time.
TH: No, they will not be able to do that. It was a statement.
JN: But I think what is important is the reaffirmation of the American security presence, and that goes really back to the 1990s. When I was in the Clinton administration, the president and then-Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto issued a declaration saying that the U.S.-Japan alliance was the core to stability in the Pacific. And along with that is the presence of nearly 50,000 American troops in Japan and 28,000 or so in Korea. And that gives credibility to the American presence. Not only do Japan and Korea help provide the monetary support for these troops being there, but with those bases it means that you can’t imagine a North Korean attack on Japan or Korea which doesn’t involve the Americans, and that makes extended deterrence credible.
TH: I want to come to your term “soft power.” Trump has shown disdain for that concept. And yet some of his top advisers, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, do see the importance of the State Department and of negotiation. What do you think is the best soft power approach now to our Asian allies, since Trump’s now reassured them on hard-power grounds?
JN: I think my favorite expression of this balance was one that Mattis expressed when he told Congress that if you don’t put more resources into soft power, you’re going to have to buy me more bullets. And that means that when you cut back on exchange programs, you cut back on things like the Fulbright program, you see a reduction in the number of foreign students from the region going to the U.S., when you see a reduction in aid programs — all these things are cutting back on the resources to produce soft power. And in Mattis’s terms, that’s going to require more bullets.
You don’t want either hard or soft power — you want the two to reinforce each other as “smart power.” And I’m afraid that the administration has not been able to get that balance right.
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