(Project of the Kajima Institute of International Peace)

February 2017

Trump's Foreign and Security Policy - Unpredictable President, Realistic Secretaries -

Tsuneo Watanabe
Senior Associate, Society of Security and Diplomatic Policy Studies
Senior Research Fellow, Sasakawa Peace Foundation

Trump's Inauguration Address

"The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer," Donald Trump declared in his inauguration speech on January 20, 2017. This was a message targeted at a limited segment of the US public, and there was no direct message to the rest of the world. What Trump told the world, in effect, was that the US would prioritize its own interests under the slogan of "America First," rather than pursue global peace and prosperity. This mindset has been characterized as an "inward looking" and "negative" self-image of the United States-a biased and rather unrealistic view, inasmuch as Americans have generally enjoyed prosperity and wealth from a globalized economy. Unfortunately, the rest of the world will need to accept the fact that such an inward-looking perception will shape the foreign and security policy of the Trump administration for a while. Trump's message has worried many in Japan-an important military ally for regional security and a close trade and economic partner of the United States:

For many decades, we've enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry. Subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military. We've defended other nation's borders while refusing to defend our own. And spent trillions of dollars overseas while America's infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.

Three Reasons Why We Still Don't See a Clear Policy Direction

I interviewed policy experts with different views of Trump in Washington, D.C., in early January 2017, and I realized that there were so many unknowns in the administration's policy direction. People hostile to or not very familiar with the new president pointed out that Trump himself had not prepared to become president and that there was great confusion in his policy team. Even pro-Trump experts were unable to point to concrete policies, although they tried best to suggest a rough direction based on his "America First" slogan.

Trump did not present a concrete policy direction during the 2016 presidential campaign, including during the three presidential debates, and stated little more than his opposition to the Trans Pacific Partnership and desire for closer cooperation with Russia. Trump's team did not even show how to compensate for the potential economic losses from abandoning the TPP, especially for the US agricultural sector, which has strong competitive advantages over other TPP signatory states.

Candidate Trump did not emphasize the negative impact of Russia's annexation of Crimea and suggested the merits of improving relations with Russia for the anti-ISIS campaign. It is still very difficult to ascertain Trump's concrete foreign and security policy direction other than from his "America First" message.

I see three reasons why the policy direction of the Trump administration remains unclear even after the inauguration. First, Trump's anti-establishment stance prevented him from using "elite" policy experts at major think tanks in Washington, D.C., to shape his policies.

During the 2016 election campaign, the Trump team did not shape its policy platform with policy experts-many of whom work in think tanks in Washington-in keeping with its "anti-establishment" and "anti-elite" rhetoric. As a matter of fact, many Republican policy experts refused to cooperate with Trump. For example, more than 130 experts signed an open letter refusing to work for the Trump team during the early primary stage in 2016. Following his nomination, Trump continued to appeal to his supporters by rejecting the Washington establishment, and this stance remained unchanged in his inauguration speech:

For too long, a small group in our nation's Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished-but the people did not share in its wealth.

His anti-establishment posture has compelled him to reject a rational policymaking process based on the shared common knowledge and experience of foreign and security policy experts in Washington. Policy discussions among key staff members in the Trump team has also been lacking. The presidential debates with Hillary Clinton focused on each other's shortcoming in character, rather than on policy differences.

Secondly, there is a big gap between Trump's policy preferences and those of the Republican establishment. Trump asserted his rejection of free trade by abandoning the TPP and calling for a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Trump also showed his reluctance to intervene in international conflicts by criticizing George W. Bush's decision to start the Iraq War. Trump's fundamental policy direction contradicts that of past Republican administrations and mainstream members of Congress and is even at odds with major cabinet members. Vice President Mike Pence has been a strong supporter of free trade, including TPP, and the Iraq War. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has stated that he is not opposed to TPP, and Defense Secretary James Mattis has stated at his confirmation hearing that Russia is "a strategic competitor, an adversary in key areas." These testimonies apparently contradict President Trump's policy views on free trade and cooperation with Russia.

Trump's protectionist tendencies may be seen as having been a useful campaign tool to attract frustrated swing voters in battleground "rustbelt" states, such as Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. But he has since created the National Trade Council in the White House to send a message to such voters that his promise to create jobs for them will be honored. However, it is still highly difficult for observers to predict his foreign and trade policy direction.

Thirdly, President Trump's idiosyncratic personality, shaped through his business experience and lack of political background, has created an enigma regarding policy. His character can be described as two U's and one T (U2T): Unpredictable, Uncertain, and Transactional. They come from his business experience, as suggested in his 1987 autobiography, Trump: The Art of the Deal. In the book, Trump notes that negotiators must not let their counterparts get what they want through a business deal. In other words, he seems to believe that creating unpredictability is highly beneficial for reaching one's business goals by increasing one's leverage. Based on such thinking, his policies as president of the United States may also be transactional, determined through deals with counterparts, rather than clearly defined goals. Such a transactional attitude is currently creating great unpredictability and uncertainty.

These traits may become shortcomings in government. When Trump was making business deals, he probably did not work with a large team. Trump alone or with a few staff members could cut successful deals. This negotiation style is in keeping with his preference for bilateral, rather than multilateral, talks. Conventional wisdom tells us that the U2T approach may not be so successful in inter-governmental negotiations, since there are vast areas that need to be negotiated and a large number of stakeholders involved.

For example, it would be very difficult to imagine how President Trump would coordinate with his cabinet members who have different policy orientations toward Russia or free-trade agreements. At the moment, he has shown tolerance for contrasting policy positions of his major secretaries, but there is no telling how this will play out. Would Trump be willing to continue to accept a secretary's pursuit of independent policies? Would he eventually try to coordinate them? Would he fire those who oppose his policies?

Whatever the scenario, the coordinating role of the National Security Advisor and National Security Council will be critically important. The coordinating skills of National Security Advisor, Gen. Michael Flynn, have not been highly praised by former colleagues in the Defense Intelligence Agency or other military institute.

Given Trump's U2T and contradictory streaks, we will need to hedge against sudden changes in the direction of his foreign and security policy. Such changes may be due to Trump's personal whims or through "transactions" with administration staffers. There are also potential policy differences and conflicts between the "true believers" in the White House, such chief strategist as Steven Bannon, and traditional realists like the secretaries of state and defense. Neither Secretary Mattis nor Tillerson have been successful in appointing deputies of their choice. Several leaks suggest that their top picks were rejected by the "true believers." We may also need to hedge against the stagnation in policy implementation caused by delays in appointments of major government posts.

Major Policy Agendas

Considering Trump's past statements and cabinet picks, a major focus of the Trump administration is likely to be the fight against ISIS. This is a goal shared by National Security Advisor Flynn and Defense Secretary Mattis. A reset with Russia would fit in this policy direction, including shaping the post-conflict situation in Syria, which will need Russian cooperation. Russia has a strong influence over the Assad regime through its military cooperation and joint operations against anti-government insurgents and ISIS. The appointment of Rex Tillerson, who has close, personal relations with Russian President Putin, as secretary of state makes sense, although mainstream Republicans are highly skeptical of Trump's pick.

At his congressional confirmation hearing, Tillerson showed some skepticism regarding Russian cooperation with Washington. However, it would be very difficult for Trump to change his own agenda without at least giving it a try. At the same time, it would be very difficult for the administration to push a skeptical Congress toward closer cooperation with Russia. And it would be difficult to imagine Russia readily cooperating with the US in the fight against ISIS or in post-conflict Syrian reconstruction if it failed to gain real benefits, such as acquiescence of Russia's annexation of Crimea or the preservation of its influence over pro-Russian forces in Ukraine.

Another feature of the Trump administration is its protectionist tendencies in foreign and trade policy. This direction is not likely to be easily compromised, since protecting US jobs was the keystone of his campaign pledge to "Make America Great Again." Pursuing this direction, however, may hurt US relations with major allies, such as Mexico, Japan, and Germany, and hinder America's own future economic growth.

A "trade war" with China would pose a far more serious risk. Trump appointed Peter Navarro, professor at UC Irvine, as chairman of the newly created National Trade Council. Navarro is highly critical of China's assertive military activities in the East and South China Sea and its trade surplus with the US.

Although Japan and a majority of the region's countries share security concerns over China, they are also worried about Trump's challenge to the "one-China policy," especially as President Xi Jinping faces a tough policy survival test during the critical leadership transition period in 2017. Trump needs to tread carefully lest he trigger a potential military conflict with China.

A big unknown is who will eventually coordinate the sporadic and contradictory elements in the foreign, trade, and security policies of the Trump administration. Trump himself is unlikely to have any clear priorities among these issues given his U2T tendencies.

Japan and other US allies will benefit as the US takes a tougher stance toward China to check its expansive and assertive attitude in the East and South China Sea, although they would not want to see an unnecessary escalation of military tensions. On the other hand, Trump's tendency to undervalue America's alliance partners may push him to seek a grand bargain with China, even if this means sacrificing the security interests of allies. If Trump starts a trade war with China, it would hurt the economies of the United States and all US allies, including Japan and South Korea, which are locked in an interdependent economic relationship with China. On his first day in office, Trump's signed an executive order pulling American out of the TPP. This could come back to haunt him both economically and strategically if Trump hopes to compel China to respect international norms.

What Should be Japan's Strategy?

Japan could benefit if Trump puts pressure on China and raises its expectations of its ally, Japan. He may also ask Japan to pick up a bigger share of the burden of maintaining Asia-Pacific security and stability. Prime Minister Abe could become one of Trump's favorites-a strong leader with one of the highest domestic support ratings among the G7 leaders.

One risk for Abe is Trump's readiness to attack countries with which the US has trade deficits to create domestic jobs. He may not consider Japan to be a critically important and irreplaceable ally if he does not see trade with Japan as being a win-win proposition regardless of imbalances in trade.

Many in Japan have painful memories of tough trade negotiations with Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton in the 1980s and 1990s. The bilateral relationship eventually got over these difficult trade conflicts by reconfirming the importance of the Japan-US alliance for the stability of the Asia-Pacific region. The Trump administration is likely to ask Japan to further increase its security role in the Asia-Pacific. Japan should thus work hard to convince President Trump of the valuable role played by the Japan-US alliance in securing the region's economic growth and make visible steps to take on a bigger share of the security burden. This, indeed, is well matched with Prime Minister Abe's own security agenda, namely, to make "proactive contributions to peace" through Japan's exercise of collective self-defense and the application of recently introduced security legislation.

current topics