Ben Roback is a Senior Account Executive at Cicero Group and a member of the US Embassy’s Young Leaders UK programme.
Donald Trump travels to Asia later this week, in what is shaping up to be a critical visit in his presidency. Having been willing to offer rhetoric around the ‘America First’ principle, the President has been less forthcoming in enacting his foreign policy vision.
At home, his policy approach has been acutely described by Richard Hass, Chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, as the ‘Withdrawal Doctrine’, having chiseled chunks out of President Obama’s legacy. But on the world stage, Trumpism has so far been less easy to pin down.
With North Korea posing an ongoing existential threat and the future of the Iran deal in the balance, world leaders will hope to learn much more from this trip abroad.
His twelve-day visit – his longest yet – includes Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines and of course China, whose leader the President was recently quick to praise following his “extraordinary elevation”. Trump has already billed the visit as a potentially “historic trip” – amidst rising tensions with North Korea, the stakes could not be higher in the most geopolitically tense hotspot in the world.
The itinerary contains a standout omission, as the White House revealed that Trump would not visit the DMZ, the infamously guarded buffer zone that dissects North and South Korea. With the exception of George HW Bush, every American president since Ronald Reagan has visited the DMZ, leading to assumption that Trump would follow suit.
But owing to what the White House described as insufficient time on the schedule and a desire to focus messaging on the relationship with South Korea, the DMZ will be avoided.
Despite that, North Korea will loom large over conversations in Seoul and Beijing, though many live in fear about response what the next ‘little rocket man’ tweet could prompt. Having leant on China to limit its trade with Pyongyang, bilateral talks with the Chinese could quickly shift to the ongoing possibility of a major trade war between the two nations.
In Manila, Trump will have his first in-person meeting with President Rodrigo Duerte, the firebrand leader whose own disregard for convention makes Trump look positively cordial. The White House framed the trip by describing a “warm rapport” between the two.
Fighting his own domestic opioid crisis at home, the president could lavish further praise on Duerte’s anti-drug campaign, having said on a call in May that he was doing “an unbelievable job on the drug problem”. The meeting between two of the world’s most frank and candid leaders could prove to be another thriller in Manila.
The meetings will give us a better idea of whose ideology is winning the fight to shape the White House’s view of its global responsibilities. China hawks with the ear of the President, like Peter Navarro and Steve Bannon, have been fighting moderate aides who warn against a US-China trade war. Navarro will not attend the trip, prompting the assumption that the talks could be more conciliatory and cooperative in tone.
If you’re not first, you’re last?
The gut feeling behind ‘America First’ – that globalisation and global American leadership has left too many Americans behind as an afterthought – is clear and evident, but its practical implication remains something of an unknown. We might assume that whilst the policy means American interests are always put first, some foreign allies are still more strategically important than others.
The Asia pacific region remains a clear foreign policy priority. The very sight of Air Force One touching down will reassure regional leaders with the exception of Beijing, whose aspiration for regional expansion is threatened by ongoing American leadership in the region. Leaders in Asia will be relieved that Trump has not followed through on some of his more extreme election campaign promises to abandon allies who did not pay their way in terms of defence spending.
The very presence of an American president is at least a reassuring start for those who consider China to be at the forefront of an emerging new world order. In a briefing call with reporters, a senior White House administration official stressed that the trip underscores a commitment to the US alliance abroad, whilst promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific region.
Without the daily influence of Fox & Friends, the President showed more message discipline on his first foreign visit. White House aides concerned by the distraction of Twitter outbursts will hope for the same this time around.
Domestic politics in Washington has barely had a chance to pause for breath in recent weeks and months, and the Asia visit comes within the context of three major ongoing political developments:
First, the legislative agenda has now been dedicated to delivering tax reform, which will require near unanimous Republican discipline and support from Capitol Hill through to the White House.
Second, Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller has sent out a major signal that his investigation means business, with charges brought against three members of the Trump campaign team in the investigation into possible Russian collusion.
Third, a devastating terrorist attack in New York, the callous nature of which will be all too familiar to readers in London after the attack on Westminster Bridge, presents a new challenge to an administration that was reluctant to look for legislative solutions to the terror attack in Las Vegas.
All of this provides a complex backdrop to the president’s trip to Asia. The stakes could hardly be higher – the world is watching.