Despite his stunning record of proving political doubters wrong, and unless he’s hiding some major surprises, President Trump looks like he’s heading for trouble at his Florida summit this week with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Two related but distinct problems stand out with what’s known of the president’s approach to the summit — the first tactical and recent, the second strategic and deeper-rooted.
The recent problem is the one that should be dropped immediately: the president’s apparent decision to use America’s trade leverage over China (which he rightly views as considerable) to press Beijing to use its own major economic influence to curb a North Korea nuclear-weapons program that increasingly threatens the United States directly — and has the entire world on edge.
Candidate Trump unmistakably realized that these U.S. alliances … are now creating the kinds of dangers to America’s homeland security that simply didn’t exist when they were established.
As Trump told the Financial Times in a Sunday interview: “China has great influence over North Korea. And China will either decide to help us with North Korea, or they won’t. And if they do that will be very good for China, and if they don’t it won’t be good for anyone. I think trade is the incentive. It is all about trade.”
But even if this plan works perfectly, and China persuades the North to verifiably give up its nukes, he will have sacrificed for the time being all of America’s available clout for dealing with the Chinese trade predation that he’s repeatedly (and rightly) described as a mortal economic threat. In addition, the president could easily wind up with the worst of all worlds — ever more strongly worded but bogus Beijing promises to pressure the North, but little action; ever more subsidized and dumped Chinese goods destroying production and jobs in the United States; and ever higher Chinese trade barriers against American products and services.
Of course, Trump’s definition of “great deals” could well include “great monitoring and enforcement” mechanisms. So maybe he’d quickly see through any Chinese game-playing and return to a hard trade line. But it’s certain that his administration would face intense foreign and domestic pressure to keep the faith with China — while it keeps undermining the American economy, and North Korea keeps improving nuclear weapons already dangerously close to reaching the U.S. homeland. And again, if China finally delivered on its promise, the American economy would be back behind the eight-ball again.
The strategic problem concerns the tension between candidate Trump’s willingness to question whether America’s comprehensive approach to dealing with East Asia has become dangerously obsolete decades after the end of the Cold War that spawned it, and President Trump’s apparent decision to preserve this status quo. Further, because ever more capable North Korean (and to a lesser extent, Chinese) nuclear forces mean that the stakes will soon entail nothing less than the survival of a growing list of American cities, he needs to pick an alternative sooner rather than later.
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The status quo’s attractions are obvious, especially to the diplomatic mandarins in both major political parties. Consistent with their conviction about history teaching that American security and prosperity require creating a secure and prosperous world, they claim that staying the East Asia course has long buttressed the stability of an especially vibrant but historically conflict-prone part of a closely connected global economy. Although establishmentarians agree that this strategy poses risks, they consider them well-known and eminently manageable. As for costs — such as damage to America’s economy from East Asian protectionism — these are either defined out of existence by citing win-win free-trade mantras, or viewed as an affordable price for peace in our time.
This case has certainly been made to President Trump by the mandarins who have filled the top spots of his foreign policy and national security agencies, and from all appearances, he’s listened. Just think of his February summit with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Defense Secretary James Mathis’ trip to Japan and South Korea. Nary a word was heard about predatory trade, and the administration affirmed that the U.S. commitment to Tokyo and Seoul against all enemies (i.e., North Korea and China) was “ironclad.”
And yet as a candidate, the president recognized two major and urgent reasons for changing the alliance status quo. First, as he frequently lamented, America’s heavy spending on alliances and foreign aid has drained the wealth needed to keep its economy thriving. Trump most often called for ending European and Asian defense free-riding. But his pointed threat to consider letting “these countries defend themselves” demonstrated his awareness that — as he argued on another occasion — “When the other side knows you’re not going to walk, it becomes absolutely impossible to win.” If Trump keeps calling America’s alliance guarantees inviolable, however, and reduces his criticisms to quarrels about contributions, he fires those same shots into his feet.
Second, and more important, candidate Trump unmistakably realized that these U.S. alliances — and especially in Asia due to the North Korea threat — are now creating the kinds of dangers to America’s homeland security that simply didn’t exist when they were established.
For most of the Cold War, the U.S. nuclear umbrella covered East Asia at modest risk because America enjoyed overwhelming strategic superiority over China, and North Korea had no nuclear arsenal at all. (The much stronger Soviet Union was considered a prudent and predictable rival.)
In fact, Washington felt so confident that it stationed tens of thousands of American soldiers right along the North-South Korean border. Their mission: to all but guarantee that if North Korea conventional forces invaded their neighbor, Americans would die and trigger a massive U.S. nuclear response. This gambit violated a fundamental maxim of strategy by virtually denying the nation the option of sitting a conflict out. But because the North lacked its own weapons of mass destruction, it could do little or nothing to keep U.S. nukes safely in their silos, and, deterrence held firm. Just as important from Washington’s perspective, its strategy prevented Japan’s full rearmament — and possible relapse back into World War II-type militarism.
Nowadays, however, this American “escalation dominance” may already be gone. That is, if defending South Korea might not yet result in the nuclear destruction of an American city, or two, it soon will. Yet the G.I.s remain right along the North Korean border; their mission remains, in effect, getting killed; and the American foreign policy establishment is pretending that the situation remains well in hand.
In a March interview with The New York Times, Trump strongly indicated that because of North Korea’s emerging ability to strike American targets, the United States might now be better off if Japan and South Korea defended themselves with their own nukes — and in the process, left the United States on the sidelines.
Of course, establishmentarians and their mainstream media parrots pilloried these views as dangerous know-nothing-ism. In fact, he was the only adult in the room — and should have gone further. For the United States is more than 6,000 miles from Japan, North Korea, and South Korea. Because of its own immense nuclear arsenal, it is surely credibly deterring the North against attacking American territory in the only way possible, whether dictator Kim Jong-Un is deranged or not: by promising to annihilate his country if its nukes ever hit the United States. But even despite the North’s undeniable hostility, its only plausible reason for threatening such an attack on America is because of possible U.S. involvement in a Korean peninsula war.
In contrast with the United States, North Korea’s neighbors are located right next door. Their stakes (including China’s and Russia’s) in successfully coping with the North’s nuclear program and unpredictability are therefore infinitely greater than America’s. So the real “America First” strategy is for President Trump to tell Xi Jinping that henceforth, the North is a problem that needs to be dealt with by him and the other locals, that the United States is pulling out militarily to reduce its nuclear vulnerability, that he wishes them well in this regard — and that now it’s time to reduce that huge trade surplus you’re running with us.
Alan Tonelson, who writes on economic and security policy at RealityChek, is the author of “The Race to the Bottom” (Westview Press, 2002). Follow him on Twitter: @AlanTonelson