Category Archives: China and Asia Pivot

Trump’s surprisingly positive foreign policy–and some unanswered questions

Despite a surprisingly upbeat and coherent first address to Congress on February 28th, given these polarised times it is highly unlikely Donald Trump changed anyone’s mind. Those who rather fanatically support him will have found nothing particularly objectionable with what he said. Those who rather fanatically oppose him will have heard nothing to alter their opinion, either. This is both the political strength and the weakness of the man who first sensed—and then supremely capitalised on—the canyon-like divisions lying submerged just beneath the surface of American life.

The speech isn’t the problem

The power of persuasion–already dying when the supposedly great orator Barack Obama failed to bring a single congressional Republican with him over his signature Health Care initiative—is dangerously just not a part of American politics anymore. Battle lines are drawn and compromise in any form is out, a dolorous development which would have horrified the country’s founders, wise men who crafted a wondrously enduring system based precisely on the notion of political give and take.

This is perhaps America’s great secret to success, constitutional stability (having one republic to France’s five) allowing for the great economic prosperity that has followed. Watching the Democrats studiously not clap for a trillion-dollar infrastructure initiative that the left of their party has been calling for over many years is a striking example of the death of policy discourse in American life, and the dangerous rise of tribalism. It simply does not matter what Trump says; the Democrats will fanatically oppose it (and vice-versa). This is the whirlwind Trump’s revolution is reaping.

People are foreign policy

However, contrary to all our fears, there has been a lot to commend the first moves of the Trump White House over foreign policy. As I know well from my many days in Washington, actual people make policy and to some extent are policy. In selecting the highly-capable General James Mattis to run the Defence Department and in picking the innovative General H.R. McMaster to run the National Security Council (after the brief, but disastrous General Michael Flynn detour), President Trump has put in place a creative, realist national security team that George H.W. Bush would be comfortable with. The huge question remains whether the highly mercurial and intellectually unformed president will actually heed their advice.

Worse, he might actually grow weary of the real-world restraints they make clear to him in conducting American foreign policy and fire them. There is no better analytical canary in the coal mine for the future of American foreign policy than this; what is the bureaucratic fate of the undeniably able national security team Trump has assembled? Following their personal fates will go a long way in tracing the new trajectory of American foreign policy itself.

So far, so good

Yet on his own over this past month, President Trump has managed to succeed in doing two seemingly contradictorily but useful big things; he has questioned the tired, old shibboleths of American foreign policy, even as he re-affirmed of number of their basic precepts. This has finally moved the intellectual clock, as it has been stuck for two decades, a desperately needed innovation, as the Cold War has long been over and it is well past time for intellectual thinking over foreign policy to catch up.

For whatever the policy conclusions, it is well past time both foreign policy opinion-formers and decision-makers treat their craft as more than a dreary recitation of a policy catechism that made great sense in the far-away Cold War, but—following the elite being discredited over both Iraq and the Lehman global recession—makes far less natural sense now.

Does the One-China policy actually serve American interests today? Is NATO obsolete, and what can possibly explain the European allies’ shameful strategic free riding to the detriment of the hard-pressed American public? Does the two-state solution, after all these many years of failure, actually stand any hope at all of success? I must admit (and I am no friend of the president) that before Donald Trump came on the scene, when I raised these very points I was rather arrogantly waived away by a sclerotic, discredited (though amazingly they don’t seem to know it) foreign policy elite in favour of the received wisdom of a bygone age. To put it mildly, that is no longer the case.

Yet the new foreign policy team also seems to have so far constrained the mercurial president from throwing the policy baby out with the bathwater. During his speech to Congress (and in earlier addresses to European leaders by Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of Defence Mattis) Trump made it clear he still is committed to NATO, but it is past time the allies meet the long-agreed two percent of GDP spending target for the common defence.

Trump and Mattis are merely repeating the truism I have long argued for, that continued failure to do so is a European choice, which will ultimately signal the end of the most successful military alliance in history. Trump is not wrong to bring this up; it is the European allies who are wrong to continue to free-ride on the backs of the American people.

Likewise, in his call to Chinese leader Xi Jinping, President Trump reaffirmed the American commitment to the One China policy, which he had previously flirted with doing away with. But while the American horse is back in the stable, in questioning this long-held shibboleth, Trump has made it crystal clear to a surging Beijing that a tougher, less predictable America awaits it.

Given the advances in Chinese adventurism during the time of Barack Obama, in constructing and militarising islands in the South China Sea, such an approach has a lot to commend it, perhaps leading to Beijing’s resumption of its earlier, less reckless foreign policy, inaugurated by Deng Xiaoping.

And finally, if ever there was a policy that needed a creative update it must be efforts to successfully conclude the endless Palestinian-Israeli standoff. By calling the never-achieved two-state solution into question, the Trump White House makes is clear that in terms of geo-strategy this stalemate has eaten up vast amounts of American time and effort over the past decades, while frankly more important issues (such as the rise of China and India and the advent of the multipolar world itself) have been fecklessly neglected.

And yet….

And yet for all this good news, there remains deep unease for many of us who have been pleasantly surprised in terms of foreign policy by the first month of the new, startling era of Donald Trump. First, there is the grave damage he may still do domestically and to the American constitutional system more broadly. Second, as a man who seems to decide things more by untutored instinct than deep thought, even when President Trump is right, there should be deep concern about how set in stone his new foreign policy actually is.

It is this fear of the erratic behaviour of the United States, that the world’s ordering power will lapse into incoherence, that rightly worries all those of us who wish America well. In both his opening speech to Congress and in his first month in office over foreign policy, President Trump has surprised for the better. But there remains an awfully long way to go.

Published in Aspenia online, March 1, 2017.

War with North Korea over its nuclear ambitions is now a very real possibility

Such is the concern about the mad, cruel, despotic regime of Kim Jong-Un of North Korea that recently an internet falsehood spread that sounded just crazy enough to be true.

According to the apocryphal tale, the untested Kim—chafing under the patronising tutelage of his uncle, Jang Song-thaek—decided he had had enough. Jang was dramatically arrested by the young dictator, stripped naked and fed to a pack of starving dogs.

While this Bond villain ending proved to be untrue (Jang was more prosaically merely executed by firing squad), the simple fact that the hoax was so believable highlights the problem of the West in dealing with North Korea over its nuclear programme. Deterrence only works if the other side is rational. In the case of Kim’s leadership, this is a highly dubious proposition.

As America’s most underrated modern President Dwight D. Eisenhower put it, nuclear deterrence is only effective if the other side doesn’t want to die. Ike gauged that Stalin, for all the rivers of blood he caused to flow, was rational to this extent. As such, a peaceful nuclear stalemate was possible. For all the modern world’s many twists and turns, until the advent of the North Korean nuclear programme, Eisenhower’s test has precariously held: no state with nuclear weapons has been open to committing suicide.

However, given the fundamental irrationality of the hereditary communist despotism there, relying on this in the future amounts to more of a hope than a certainty. Indeed, both the outgoing Obama foreign policy team as well as Israeli intelligence have alerted the Trump White House to the rising danger from Pyongyang, stressing that it is the most immediate peril facing the world.

For North Korea’s nuclear programme has not been standing still. In 2016, it conducted two nuclear tests and more than 20 missile tests, in an effort to expand its nuclear missile reach. In his past New Year’s speech, Kim boldly announced North Korea is in the final stages of developing an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) capable of carrying nuclear warheads, which could theoretically reach the American mainland for the first time. Further, many regional experts expect North Korea is preparing yet another nuclear test for the near future, perfecting its ballistic missile programme.

Were this to prove so (Kim’s regime notoriously tends to overstate its capabilities), it would do nothing less than change the basic global strategic equation, constituting a primary threat to the United States. North Korea, equal parts malevolent and incompetent, is playing with fire in thinking that this further exercise in brinksmanship will not elicit the strongest response from the US, as this jarring strategic shift may be something Washington is simply not prepared to live with.

In the end, America and the West have only two basic policy alternatives to halt these very alarming developments: negotiate or take military action to stop the programme, very likely risking a renewal of the Korean War and catastrophically destabilising the volatile Asia-Pacific region, even risking armed confrontation with China.

The obvious, logical, least bad policy alternative would seem to be to talk to the North Koreans. And that is what all recent American administrations have done, achieving absolutely nothing, as the outgoing Obama administration has glumly admitted.

The only real outside driver who can leverage North Korea to halt its grandiose nuclear ambitions is China, whose vibrant economy just about keeps its economic basket case ally going. However, so far Beijing has preferred to tacitly support its difficult friend, rather than joining the rest of the world in standing up to Pyongyang and risking its implosion on the Chinese border. And if negotiations did not work during the time of the Obama administration, they are far less likely to do so now, as the new Trump White House is far more antagonistic towards China than its predecessor.

All this makes for the most dangerous of potential crises, and is a wholly underrated political risk roiling the world. North Korea is dangerously aiming to alter the global strategic nuclear balance. Negotiations to curb its ambitions have failed over many years, and are even less likely to work now that the US and China are at daggers drawn. But if negotiations show no chance of success, don’t expect the US to meekly accept the alarming development of an effective, accurate North Korean ICBM which can hit the mainland US.

War, and all the peril it could bring, is very much a possibility. It is past time the world woke up to the growing political risk over North Korea.

Published in City AM London, February 6, 2016

Forget Russia: Trump’s China trade war risks breaking Asia’s fragile peace

 

“I see myself as an instrument of the Almighty and go on my way, regardless of transient opinions and views.”

–Kaiser Wilhelm II, 1910

While he was diabolically poor at follow-through, former President Barack Obama has the makings of a first-rate political risk analyst. Early on in his term, Obama keenly saw that Asia was where most of the future global growth in the world would come from, but was also the region where most of the global geopolitical risk lay. This basic insight was the motivation for Obama’s ill-starred Pivot to Asia, where the region was to rightly receive more strategic involvement from America.

Risk has been dangerously bubbling up in Asia for two basic reasons. First, and unlike in Europe where Russia is kept at bay and Germany caged, there is no multinational military organisation like NATO that both deters revisionist powers (in this case China) and keeps possibly frightening allies (in this case Japan) on the reservation.

This is largely because of the hugely counter-productive insistence of Japan’s elite to regularly pray at what my staff have come to call ‘The War Crimes Shrine’ at Yasukuni. Japan’s grudging failure to come to terms with its barbarism in World War II has alienated would-be allies such as South Korea, making the formation of a NATO-like organisation to keep the peace—and to keep America’s allies on the same page–impossible.

Second, the rise of China has created a state of being problem in East Asia; the United States is the dominant power there, and the Chinese wishes to re-claim its traditional historical dominance in the region. This basic fact—and the obvious tensions that flow from it—can simply not be wished away.

In typical business-like fashion, the Chinese leadership commissioned a study to look at historical examples over the past 500 years of what happened to the world when an emerging power (such as the China) collided with a status quo power (such as the US).

The doleful conclusion of the Thucydides study—so named for the geopolitical rivalry between Athens and Sparta that ignited the Peloponnesian War—was that, in 12 of the 16 past cases, the result has been bloodshed. Given that historical reality, the structural peril to the present world is so great only a statesman of great ability and subtlety is likely to buck the odds.

Instead of this, we have newly-inaugurated President Donald Trump, who so far has passed his audition to be the neurotic Kaiser Wilhelm of this era with flying colours. Whereas under Obama the US and China increasingly engaged in a strategic competition in East Asia in the South China and East China Seas, Trump seems intent on increasing the danger by adding an obviously harmful trade war to the menu.

Given that—unlike the Cold War where the Soviet and Western economies were strikingly separate—China and the US are inextricably linked economically, this is bound to hurt both countries, and nobble the world’s hopes for decent rates of growth. Beyond even this, it is pouring gasoline on the open fire of the inevitable Chinese-American competition in East Asia, making avoidance of the Thucydides trap infinitely harder.

Far worse still, Trump is heading into his showdown with China having just greatly alienated his many prospective allies in the region, in his breathtakingly counter-productive abrogation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an ambitious trade pact that would have welded America economically closer to key allies such as Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Singapore.

Instead, by unilaterally walking away from the meticulously negotiated pact, Trump’s White House has allowed Beijing to whisper the poisonous words to America’s Asian allies, ‘The US is not to be trusted.’

So in his Wilhelm II audition—a vainglorious bumbler who bluffed the world into an avoidable conflict—Donald Trump seems a cinch for the part. He is taking China on over the wrong issues (macro-economics not geo-strategy), with the wrong balance of power (having just spurned America’s regional allies), at the wrong time (when the world desperately needs all the global growth that it can muster).

Under Obama, the US was firm but business-like with China, defending freedom of navigation in the seas there but working with the Chinese where it could, and furthering joint economic links that make it ever harder for Beijing to turn its back (due to its vast economic interests) on an American-dominated order. The results were impressive strategically, with much of East Asia openly and increasingly siding with the US over the neighbourhood bully.

Trump’s Kaiser Wilhelm impersonation throws all this out the window, imperilling America’s favourable strategic position. As as true when Obama came to power, Asia is once again the region in the world to watch, but for far more terrifying reasons.

Published in City AM London, January 23, 2017