Prime Minister Shinzo Abe deserves credit for his proactive diplomacy following Donald Trump’s surprise election, reaching out to congratulate Trump almost immediately after the election and becoming the first foreign head of state to meet with the president-elect. He also recently completed a tour of four Southeast Asian countries to deepen Japan’s bilateral relationships with those states. Making tangible commitments to Asian integration is vital at a moment when there are concerns the new U.S. president will adopt a more isolationist course in contrast to the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia.
The good news is that complete U.S. disengagement from Asia is unlikely, especially at the scale depicted in Trump’s most infamous soundbites. Members of the transition team are quick to caution that Trump’s statements about U.S. allies paying more for their defense or acquiring nuclear weapons are second-order issues that could be considered only as part of a broader discussion about U.S. strategy in Asia and the nature of alliances in that strategy.
The bad news is that the transition, where administrations assemble the pieces to manage the day-to-day government functions, was a disaster by almost every conventional measure. Many of Trump’s Cabinet nominees have openly broken with his statements during the confirmation hearings in the Senate on major policy issues such as the utility of alliances, relations with Russia, trade and more.
In abstract, healthy disagreements between experienced and committed government servants is a good thing as long as there is an arbitrator empowered to referee the disagreements and form them into compromises that are consistent with the administration’s broad goals. Brent Scowcroft’s tenure as national security adviser in the George H.W. Bush administration is an ideal example.
How this will work in Trump’s administration is much less clear. Reince Priebus, his chief of staff, is mostly inexperienced in foreign policy and will focus on congressional relations. Steve Bannon, his chief strategist, has an apparent interest in Asia policy but is also at the forefront of the white nationalist “alt-right” movement. Michael Flynn, his national security adviser, was effectively fired from his position as director of national intelligence because, according to a leaked email from Colin Powell, he “was abusive with staff, didn’t listen, worked against policy, bad management, etc.”
In other words, the likelihood that Trump’s advisers will be able to effectively arbitrate disagreements is minimal. For his part, Trump has been said to sit back and watch staff disputes unfold to see who ultimately prevails.
Abe and his aides who have met with Trump have said that Trump’s team understands the importance of Asia and of U.S. alliances in the region. This is the right message for the new administration to send, but it will need to be followed up by consistently communicating its message to U.S. allies because in the absence of clarity, they will begin to draw their own conclusions, which may lead them to hedge by adopting a more unilateral approach or to align towards China.
Neither approach is inherently bad — smart leaders should aim for an appropriate mix of both while also not giving up on the United States — but it will lead to more uncertainty and less U.S. influence over outcomes.
This is where experienced Asia hands will become vital for the new administration, particularly at the lower-level positions — deputy secretaries, undersecretaries and National Security Council staff positions. These are the people who will not just manage day-to-day functions but will also be responsible for coordinating different U.S. agencies during a crisis. They will understand the importance of developing and maintaining the right networks and the importance of simply “showing up” even if the meeting or forum isn’t productive, slowly building up the trust necessary to maintain U.S. relationships in Asia.
But these positions so far have been left almost entirely unstaffed. While the few Asia hands that have been named so far have strong experience in the region, they are not yet buttressed by other staffers who can implement and communicate U.S. policy to their counterparts.
Meanwhile, the fractious, contradictory and downright incompetent (early attempts at media relations are disinformation campaigns) leadership in the White House will make it impossible for foreign governments to distinguish between what to take seriously, what to take literally and what to discount completely. The result is that it will be unclear who will speak for the administration, what administration policy really is and who will be responsible during a crisis.
This makes it more likely that a normally small crisis, like China unilaterally extending an air defense identification zone, will become a much more major crisis if the U.S. is unable to effectively communicate its deterrence capabilities and commitments to allies. It makes the prospect for conflict, if not open war, much more likely.
This makes Abe’s efforts at Asian integration all the more important. Japan and other countries will need to continue and deepen this effort, but with the full and unequivocal awareness that the U.S. during Trump’s administration will provide more confusion instead of serving Washinton’s traditional role as a stabilizing force.
Paul Nadeau is a private secretary for a member of the Diet’s Lower House.
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