October 5, 2017 3:00 pm JST
Robert A. Manning

Is Trump's US still a serious country?

His Asia trip would be a good time to lay off Twitter and reassure allies

U.S. President Donald Trump's tweet storms are often at odds with statements by his top officials. © Reuters

For great powers, words and gestures matter. They are the currency of credibility and shape the perceptions and calculations of allies and adversaries alike. A cogent sense of purpose and direction is critical. That is precisely why both U.S. partners and opponents are so unnerved by Donald Trump.

From Day One there has been a repeated, tweet-laden pattern of contradictory, often fact-challenged statements, with top U.S. officials saying the opposite of the president. There is something to be said for Trump's penchant for being unpredictable, keeping adversaries off-balance. But what about behavior that leads partners to doubt your reliability and path, the foundation of any alliance?

Trump's recent verbal explosions are particularly disconcerting. Put his tweet that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is "wasting his time" trying to negotiate with "little Rocket Man" in context: Tillerson, in Beijing to prepare for Trump's November visit, had just revealed on the front page of The New York Times that the U.S. is talking to North Korea. Beijing is applying unprecedented economic pressure on Pyongyang, halting imports and ejecting all North Korean business.

In one frivolous tweet, Trump completely undermined Tillerson's credibility, raised Pyongyang's ire and left allies with a host of questions. Has the U.S. already decided to pre-empt North Korea? What, exactly, is U.S. policy? Who speaks for it?

Repeatedly mocking and humiliating Kim Jong Un has reversed North Korean views of Trump based on earlier comments about meeting with Kim. And if Trump has ruled out diplomacy, is he considering military strikes?

The White House spokesperson, following up on the president's tweets, proclaimed that "now is not the time for talk."

With nuclear war hanging in the balance, such incoherence is especially troubling. But it is a now familiar pattern. When Trump called NATO "obsolete," Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis rushed to Brussels to confirm the U.S. commitment to the Atlantic alliance. When Trump said he would kill the Iran nuclear deal, Tillerson said Tehran was in "technical compliance," a view echoed by Trump's top military advisers. When Trump sided with Riyadh in the Saudi-Qatar standoff, Tillerson sought to work with Qatar to mediate.

Ironically, apart from trade -- where Trump's rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement undid one of the pillars of America's Asia strategy -- the administration appears to be pursuing conventional Asia-Pacific policies in many respects. Even on North Korea, despite Trump's tweet storms, the broad thrust is to pressure Pyongyang, working with China to intensify sanctions aimed at getting the regime back to the negotiating table.

Trump has been doing a major review of China policy that is likely to result in a harder edge. But the basic idea of cooperating where possible and managing differences remains.

In regard to U.S. alliances in the region -- Japan, South Korea, Australia -- both Tillerson and Mattis have repeatedly reaffirmed American commitments. Mattis recently visited India to advance security cooperation with New Delhi. Moreover, the U.S. plans to add $7.5 billion to its defense budget to increase its military capabilities in Asia. Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has a good relationship with Trump, who has expressed full support for the U.S.-Japan alliance. Trump has hosted a number of Asian leaders, from Abe and South Korea's Moon Jae-in to China's Xi Jinping, India's Narendra Modi, Malaysia's Najib Razak and Thailand's Prayuth Chan-ocha.

But at the same time, Trump's "America first" nationalist views -- bluntly expressed in his recent U.N. General Assembly address, capricious behavior, and hostility to the KORUS trade pact with South Korea and other "globalist" multilateralism -- cast doubt on U.S. pledges.

Tweet-free seriousness

At the same time, there is concern that Trump's posture is creating openings for an economically and militarily assertive China. Beijing is already the largest trading partner of every nation in East Asia. President Xi's $1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative is well-received in a region eager for infrastructure investment. Beijing's growing economic shadow over an increasingly integrated Asia-Pacific region stands in stark contrast with the U.S. absence from broadening, Sino-centric regional institutions and mechanisms -- from the Belt and Road to the Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralization, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

In Europe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel famously declared earlier this year that "we can't rely" on outsiders. While U.S.-NATO ties have stabilized, there is new momentum toward greater unity in the European Union. In Asia, there is fear that the U.S. is out of step with regional trends and that the Trump confusion may, in effect, if not intent, be leading to a U.S. version of Britain's pullback "East of Suez." It may be an imperfect analogy, but call it East of Guam.

Across the region there are signs of hedging against uncertainty. In Japan, Abe is pursuing his own free trade agenda, moving on with the TPP-11 and a major EU-Japan trade deal. The proposed Free Trade Area for the Asia-Pacific will be on the agenda for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit next month. 

As for security, Japan is debating whether it should acquire its own strike capability, while in South Korea support for its own nuclear weapons and more capable missiles is mounting. At the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, countries like the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand are accommodating to China's policies in the South China Sea.

Against this backdrop, Trump's first trip to Asia next month will be an important measure of U.S. policy toward the region. Will his disdain for multilateralism be a source of tension at the APEC and East Asia Summit meetings? Or will the imperative of cooperation to denuclearize North Korea produce more statesmanlike behavior? And how will Trump respond to APEC's globalization agenda and calls for a free trade agreement in the Asia-Pacific?

An aura of tweet-free seriousness would go a long way toward renewing U.S. leadership and stature in the region.

Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council and its Foresight, Strategy and Risks Initiative. He served as a senior counselor to the undersecretary of state for global affairs from 2001 to 2004, as a member of the U.S. Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008, and on the National Intelligence Council Strategic Futures Group from 2008 to 2012.

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