December 31, 2017
United States President Donald Trump stands next to Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc at the G20 Summit in Germany on July 8, 2017. Photo by: VGP
In the twelve months since the 2016 elections, the United States has undergone an unrelenting series of attacks on its constitutional provisions, its regulatory regime, its democratic procedures and its social cohesion. US President Donald Trump has been the knife-edge of these assaults.
He has repeatedly challenged judicial and media independence. He threatens banana republic-like judicial retaliation against his political opponents. He has green-lighted white supremacy and Nazi marchers while attacking religious, racial and ethnic minorities. He has refused to enforce existing laws while his appointments and executive orders have undercut the missions of numerous government agencies. He has exploited the presidency to enrich himself and his family while following the authoritarian’s playbook by muddying the line between fact and fiction through shameless denials of inconvenient facts — whether they be the size of his inaugural crowd, the science of climate change or the conclusion of US intelligence agencies that Russian interference helped his election.
Yet his actions are hardly those of an unsupported autocrat. A Republican Congress and an animated support base provide steady enabling. They seem convinced that they are in an existential gang war, and beneath their red jerseys, they have proven themselves better armed and more willing to sacrifice principles for one-party autocracy than their blue-jerseyed ‘enemies’.
Darkening for democracy as this domestic situation is, the immediate impact on Asia is largely indirect. As US political power focuses inwardly, US engagement with Asia atrophies. Nothing telegraphs the minimisation of foreign policy more than the evisceration of the Department of State. A diplomatic novice leads it, the department faces major budget cuts, scores of senior diplomats — including 60 per cent of the United States’ senior ambassadors — have resigned while 74 top posts at the State Department remain vacant with no announced nominee.
Despite a purported concern with North Korea, the Trump administration (as of 29 November), had not even nominated individuals to fill such key posts as Assistant Secretary for International Security and Non-Proliferation, Assistant Secretary for East Asia or Ambassador to South Korea.
Some might offer Trump’s 12 day, five-nation trip to Asia as counter-evidence. Yet aside from a physical presence in the region and a number of showy photo ops, the trip generated few concrete outcomes. Trump’s ‘America First’ speech at APEC was an unapologetic broadcasting of his government’s domestic obsession and its obliviousness to the reality that the global and regional trade regime he vilified has been vital to Asia’s post-war economic success. His last-minute decision to skip the plenary session of the East Asia Summit testified further to his administration’s narcissistic approach to Asia, including its multilateral institutions.
Underscoring the absence of an integrative strategy was the schizophrenic insistence that Asian countries should cooperate multilaterally with the United States regarding North Korea but simultaneously that they should all behave unilaterally on trade and in doing so follow the lead of the US. Equally inconsistent was Trump’s decision to decertify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal forged by his predecessor Barack Obama and major world leaders. The signal sent to the North Koreans could not be clearer: why enter a deal with us if we are free to ignore prior international agreements?
Such diametrically antagonistic impulses have left allies and adversaries alike confused about the United States’ motives and staying power: what are the United States’ goals, what tactics will advance their implementation and will anyone be in office to advance them?
Unfair trading practices — most particularly China’s mercantilist behaviour and constraints on foreign companies — deserve criticism. But rather than aligning allies such as Japan, South Korea and Germany, all of which have suffered from Chinese practices, the Trump administration has been approaching the issue unilaterally and inconsistently, minimising the chances for support from others victimised by Chinese practices. Thus, in his recent visit to China, Trump basked in his host’s flattering pageantry while ignoring earlier declamations about trade practices. Instead, he concentrated on pressuring China to tighten sanctions on North Korea.
Meanwhile, as its democracy deteriorates domestically, the longstanding appeal of US soft power withers. Admittedly, the United States has never been especially forceful in promoting human rights and democracy in Asia. But it is difficult to convince locals that democracy and citizens’ rights remain a high priority in the face of the Trump administration’s domestic behaviour and its expressions of admiration for Asian authoritarians like Chinese President Xi, Russian President Putin, Philippine President Duterte, Thai Prime Minister Chan-ocha and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib (not to mention Kim Jong-un, whom Trump labelled ‘a pretty smart cookie’).
Not surprisingly, during his visit to China, Trump played his ‘get out of jail free’ card on behalf of three UCLA basketball shoplifters while ignoring the many prominent political prisoners languishing in Chinese prisons. As former US national security advisor Susan Rice phrased it: ‘the Chinese leadership played President Trump like a fiddle, catering to his insatiable ego and substituting pomp and circumstance for substance’.
The longstanding regional order now faces major challenges, and realists across Asia must deal with the United States as it is — not as they would like it to be. Thus the other participants of the Trans-Pacific Partnership have moved ahead without the United States to forge their own eleven-nation agreement (suspending provisions previously negotiated to benefit the United States).
Meanwhile, China utilises the absence of the United States and its own economic strengths to enhance its influence over regional developments. For example, Vietnam and the Philippines have reached an accommodation with China in the South China Sea while in return for an easing of Chinese economic pressures against THAAD, South Korea has capitulated to ‘three nos’ that abdicate key security options with the United States and Japan.
As the regional order shifts, it is unfortunate for both the United States and many in Asia that Washington, obsessed with its own domestic battles, is likely to observe these changes from the sidelines.
TJ Pempel is Jack M Forcey Professor in the Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley.
This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2017 in review and the year ahead.