LONDON – As a businessman, Donald Trump saw strength in his willingness to keep multiple balls in the air and change approach as they fell. In international relations, that unpredictability may be proving a liability.
In recent days, Trump’s sudden policy reversals on everything from tariffs to nuclear nonproliferation have prompted complaints from allies and rivals alike. Such flexible negotiating tactics — laid out in Trump’s 1987 book “The Art of the Deal” — have led them to question America’s reliability as a negotiating and, in some cases, security partner.
With defense ministers from around the world convening Friday for the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue security conference in Singapore, questions around U.S. reliability are likely to rival familiar concerns about China’s growing military assertiveness.
“A lot of delegates will be asking the questions they started asking last year about U.S. consistency and its determination to carry on a full defense of the rules-based international order,” said John Chipman, director-general of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, which organizes the event at the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore.
Trump’s moves have put long-standing alliances under strain and created opportunities for China — which has already displaced the U.S. as the top trading partner for most Asian nations — to conduct outreach of its own. Amid U.S. tariff threats in April, China and Japan held their first trade negotiation in eight years.
“I’m lost” when it comes to Trump, European Commission Chief Executive Jean-Claude Juncker said during a speech in Brussels on Thursday, just before the U.S. confirmed it would impose new steel and aluminum tariffs on the European Union, Canada and Mexico.
Fresh in the minds of delegates are Trump’s decisions to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, abandon a trade cease-fire with China and cancel — and then revive — his planned summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The summit moves blind-sided two key Asian allies: South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who had just returned from Washington, and Prime Minster Shinzo Abe.
China was the latest to speak out after Trump said he would proceed with imposing tariffs on $50 billion worth of Chinese imports despite his treasury secretary’s announcement that a trade war was “on hold.”
“Every flip flop in international relations simply depletes a country’s credibility,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying.
The same day, Abe expressed frustration over U.S. plans to impose trade penalties on his country on national security grounds. Abe, who has invested heavily in cultivating a relationship with Trump, said it was unacceptable for the U.S. to take such an action against one of its closest military partners.
On Tuesday, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad — who took power in May — said he has no interest in meeting Trump. “I don’t know how to work with a person who changes his mind overnight,” Mahathir told the Financial Times in an interview.
Still, Trump’s willingness to switch tack midstream — as he did with his letter to Kim canceling their planned June 12 summit — may at times yield results.
The U.S. president can claim success in securing the release of three American detainees from North Korea and one from Venezuela. More aggressive attacks on the Islamic State have helped bring the terrorist group closer to defeat in former strongholds in Syria and Iraq. And less than a year after Trump and Kim were trading threats of nuclear war, the two sides are back in talks over the historic summit.
That highlights how concerns about U.S. reliability are less acute in the security sphere, where nations who want to address potential threats from China, North Korea, Russia or international terrorism have few alternatives. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has strengthened ties with the U.S. since coming to power in 2014, will this year become the first Indian leader to address the Shangri-La conference.
The Pentagon — with its $700 billion budget — has also shown consistent support for security in Asia, regardless of course changes in the White House. U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general, enjoys wide respect among his peers and is expected to reaffirm the U.S.’s commitment to the region while addressing the Singapore gathering Saturday.
Chipman, of IISS, said Trump’s policy of maintaining full pressure on North Korea was evidence of the U.S.’s continued commitment to Asian security. He also cited a Pentagon decision to disinvite China from the Exercise RIMPAC maritime military drills — the world’s largest — after China landed a long-range bomber and deployed missiles on disputed outposts in the South China Sea.
At the same time, the U.S.’s U-turn on the Iran deal infuriated many allies, who see the agreement as essential to avoiding yet more conflict in the Middle East. German Chancellor Angela Merkel concluded that the European Union could no longer rely on the U.S. for security.
That shift — like Trump’s earlier decisions to pull out of the Paris climate change agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal — threatens to erode alliances built up over 70 years. Whereas Russia and China must negotiate every issue with every partner from scratch, proponents of the current American-led order say a vast network of alliances creates an advantage for the U.S.
Trump “is oblivious to the advantages of being at the center of the global order,” said Michael Fullilove, executive director of the Lowy Institute in Sydney. “He is dubious about the value of alliances, even though China or Russia would dearly love to have an alliance network as powerful and cost-effective as that of the United States.”