Vietnam’s Hopes dashed as Trump exits TPP

January 21, 2018

Vietnam’s Open Trade Policy Hopes dashed as Trump exits TPP

by Thomas Jandl, TJMR Asia Consulting

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After the 2016 election, hope remained in Hanoi that President Trump, once in office, would turn from firebrand protectionist campaigner into a leader who accepted the value of open trade — a cause in which the Vietnamese government had invested so much in preparation for Vietnam’s membership of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. These hopes have given way to a hangover.

By now it is clear that Trump will govern as he campaigned: without long-term strategy and with little interest in any assessment of consequences. Not surprisingly, some 60 per cent of top US diplomats have resigned and key foreign policy positions remain unfilled. Clearly, Washington is in no position to chart a clear course for the United States’ key relationships around the world.

Vietnam’s carefully crafted policy of non-alignment — by which Hanoi has skilfully exploited big-power rivalries to balance economic and political interests — now requires a major update. During the APEC summit in Da Nang, Trump stood in front of the leaders of the foremost multilateral institution in the region and waxed about a free and open Indo-Pacific, at the same time heaping criticism on multilateralism. Trump offered bilateral deals to any takers but with the caveat that he wanted to see the United States ‘win’ what he considers a zero-sum game. That kind of deal is not likely to find many takers.

Unlike Trump, Xi Jinping has a plan to make China great again. Speaking at APEC after Trump, China’s President offered a vision of the shared benefits of a free-trading region. Vietnamese officials were smitten with Xi’s willingness to dispense with protocol during the APEC forum. In his speeches, with a wink at the United States, Xi offered a mutually beneficial deal in which trade and investment are not zero-sum games, and he assumed the leadership mantle on economic openness in Asia. While Trump adopts China’s earlier, failed approach of ramming bilateral trade deals down smaller countries’ throats one by one, Xi is on a charm offensive with a multilateralist agenda.

While China is clearly emerging as the leader of a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’, Vietnam may be a bright spot for Trump. Vietnamese diplomats hurry to say that Hanoi will pursue a bilateral deal with Washington, less for its economic gains than for its symbolic value. Vietnam’s US$32 billion trade surplus with the United States makes it vulnerable to a bad deal in Trump’s trade war. Yet Hanoi hopes to be able to appeal to Trump’s self-regard: if Vietnam is among the very few takers of Trump’s offer, then it may be rewarded simply for showing up and giving Trump something to gloat about. And then there is the symbolism of cooperating with Washington at the same time as Beijing aims for regional leadership.

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But this strategy is fraught with risk. Any deal with Trump is bound to be fickle. If the Republican Party is trounced at the mid-term elections in November 2018, congressional leaders and the Trump administration could set out on very different courses. Moreover, with no long-term strategy, any shift in domestic mood — or in his personal mood — may turn Trump against Vietnam in no time.

Traditionally, Vietnam prefers multilateral venues where no one party calls the shots. That is why any bilateral talks with Washington must be seen as bargaining chips for RCEP and TPP-11, to which Vietnam remains strongly committed. Having as many friends as possible is an important bargaining chip for a country like Vietnam, that traditionally punches above its weight, especially with respect to its big northern neighbour whose hegemonic impulses and significant claims on Vietnamese waters are cause for concern.

TPP would have made it easier for Vietnam to escape China’s orbit. That ship has sailed, at least for now. In the meantime, Vietnam is trying to improve its bargaining power for a position within that China orbit. Whether any deal with Trump is useful — or credible — is the risky bet Hanoi is now forced to make.

Thomas Jandl is a founding partner of TJMR Asia Consulting and a non-resident scholar at the Social Sciences and Humanities Department, Vietnam National University (VNU).

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2017 in review and the year ahead.

The NY Times Book Review: Max Boot’s The Road not Taken

January 9, 2018

The NY Times Book Review: Max Boot’s The Road not Taken

by Fredrik Logevall

Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam

By Max Boot
Illustrated 715 pp. Liveright. $35.
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Could it have turned out differently? Even before the guns fell silent in Vietnam, Americans began debating whether an alternate strategy might have brought success in the war. For some revisionist analysts, the path to victory would have involved more firepower from an earlier point on more parts of enemy territory. In this interpretation, overcautious civilians compelled the United States military to fight “with one arm tied behind its back.”

Never mind that this ostensibly “limited” war saw eight million tons of bombs dropped by American and allied aircraft on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia between 1962 and 1973, killing many hundreds of thousands of civilians, or that the United States sprayed some 19 million gallons of defoliants on South Vietnam in an attempt to deny enemy forces jungle cover and food. Never mind that the American troop commitment at its height reached more than half a million men, or that more than 58,000 of them never made it back alive.

The more interesting and at first glance attractive argument is the opposite one: that the answer in Vietnam was to deploy less military force, not more. Washington planners, this perspective holds, erred in seeing the struggle principally as a conventional military conflict when what really mattered was the human dimension. They forgot that in a war of this kind it was not enough to be against Communism; one had to be for something. The key to victory lay in meeting the needs of people where they lived, in responding to their aspirations, in winning, as the saying went, their “hearts and minds.”

Max Boot’s latest book, The Road Not Taken, discusses his contention that the Vietnam War could have been avoided if American leaders had listened to a visionary CIA Agent, Edward Lansdale, who called for a focus on hearts and minds, not bombs and body counts. Come hear a fascinating tale of spy craft, bureaucracy and combat.

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Note: Boot is a military historian and foreign policy analyst who has been called one of the “world’s leading authorities on armed conflict” by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He’s a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and the Los Angeles Times, a columnist for Foreign Policy, and a regular contributor to The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

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Boot served as an adviser to U.S. commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was also a senior foreign policy adviser to John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2007–08, a defense policy adviser to Mitt Romney’s campaign in 2011–12, and the head of the counterterrorism working group for Marco Rubio’s campaign in 2015-16. Boot was born in Moscow and grew up in Los Angeles. He holds a bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley and a master’s degree in history from Yale University.–

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One man personified this outlook more than perhaps anyone else: Edward Lansdale, the larger-than-life intelligence operative of America’s Cold War who is the subject of Max Boot’s judicious and absorbing, if not fully convincing, new book, “The Road Not Taken.” A dashing champion of counterinsurgency who helped thwart a rebellion in the Philippines and plotted to oust Fidel Castro, Lansdale was present at the creation of South Vietnam in 1954 as an important adviser to Prime Minister (and later President) Ngo Dinh Diem. His influence would fade, but not his belief that the struggle for Vietnam had to be won — and could be, provided American strategists employed the right combination of political and military measures.

Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, brings solid credentials to this enterprise, having written well-received histories of guerrilla warfare and America’s “small wars.” Here he draws on a range of material, official and personal, including a stash of love letters between Lansdale and his Filipino mistress. The narrative dispenses briskly and effectively with the details of Lansdale’s early life, including his college years at U.C.L.A. and his successful entry into the advertising industry, where he learned strategies of psychological manipulation that he later applied as a covert warrior in Southeast Asia. A stint as an intelligence officer under “Wild Bill” Donovan in the wartime Office of Strategic Services convinced him that this work should be his life’s career.

What emerges is a picture of a man who from an early point possessed an unusual ability to relate to other people, a stereotypically American can-do optimism, an impatience with bureaucracy and a fascination with psychological warfare. All these qualities were on display in Lansdale’s first major postwar posting, in the newly independent Philippines, where on behalf of the C.I.A. he helped suppress the left-wing Hukbalahap insurgency in the early 1950s.

But it was in Vietnam that Lansdale would achieve his greatest renown — and frustration. Neil Sheehan’s assertion, in “A Bright Shining Lie,” that “South Vietnam, it can truly be said, was the creation of Edward Lansdale,” is surely an exaggeration, but it speaks to Lansdale’s fundamental importance. Beginning in mid-1954 he ran a covert intelligence operation that sent sabotage teams to North Vietnam and helped facilitate the flow of refugees from north to south.

More consequentially, Lansdale was from the start the closest American adviser to Ngo Dinh Diem, his car often parked outside the Saigon leader’s residence deep into the night. When in early 1955 the regime faced violent challenges to its rule from sects within South Vietnam, Lansdale persuaded the Eisenhower administration to stand firm with Diem, a critical move that in all likelihood preserved Diem’s hold on power.

This proved to be the high point of Lansdale’s influence in Saigon — and, for that matter, Washington. Diem grew tired of the American upbraiding him for undemocratic moves like closing opposition newspapers. “Do you think that’s the right thing for ‘the father of his country’ to do?” Lansdale asked, to which Diem replied, “Stop calling me papa!”

Even as his clout diminished and his worries grew over the regime’s coercive actions, Lansdale extolled Diem’s achievements and urged continued American support. No other plausible leader existed who could take the fight to the Vietcong. For Lansdale, as for Boot, Diem’s ouster and murder in a coup d’état in late 1963 backed by the United States was a watershed moment, a calamitous development from which the war effort never fully recovered.

There’s something to this argument — it required about four years for the politics in South Vietnam to settle, and the Communists took advantage of the turmoil — but it misses how bleak and unsustainable the situation was with Diem. Communist forces were already gaining momentum in the countryside after 1962, which is partly why the South Vietnamese military had grown so disgruntled and why the Kennedy administration wanted a change. With his shallow conception of leadership and easy resort to repression, Diem, a Roman Catholic, had long since alienated powerful segments of South Vietnamese society, including the leaders of the Buddhist majority, and his regime enjoyed scant support among the peasantry. The coup against him was enormously popular. It’s hard to see Diem surviving in power for long regardless of what John F. Kennedy did in the fall of 1963.

To his credit, Lansdale always emphasized the need to focus on developments within South Vietnam. More than many American officials, he understood that even if one somehow stopped the flow of men and matériel from the North, the southern insurgency would remain a formidable threat to the Saigon regime. Bombing North Vietnam was therefore no solution. Unshakable in his conviction that the American way was right for everyone, Lansdale nevertheless insisted on the need to show empathy for local values and practices, to spend time with villagers, and he perceived — to a degree at least — the dilemma at the heart of American strategy: What do you do when the destruction deemed necessary to defeat an insurgency alienates the very population you seek to bring over to the government’s side?

Many of Lansdale’s ideas, however, were kooky: He advocated distributing counterfeit official documents in North Vietnam to sow confusion and fear, providing the Vietcong with booby-trapped ammunition intended to blow up in their faces and having Saigon leaders give “fireside chats” à la Franklin D. Roosevelt — and he understood Vietnamese society and politics less well than this admiring book suggests. His well-founded concern about the problems posed by pervasive South Vietnamese official corruption (grasped, contrary to Boot’s claim, by virtually every American intelligence analyst after 1965) did not keep him from championing the unscrupulous, impetuous and flamboyant Nguyen Cao Ky for Saigon’s leadership — he of the aviator sunglasses, purple silk scarf and pearl-handled revolver. Ky’s embrace of American largess made him the very symbol of corruption in the eyes of a great many Vietnamese (and he once told stunned journalists that his only hero was Adolf Hitler).

There is power in Boot’s conclusion that Lansdale “never wanted to see half a million American troops thrashing around Vietnam, suffering and inflicting heavy casualties. His approach, successful or not, would have been more humane and less costly.” In this sense, the Lansdale way was indeed “the road not taken.” Whether that road would have led to the destination he so wanted to reach, however, is doubtful. As much as this irrepressible Cold Warrior might have thought otherwise, Vietnam for the United States was destined to be what it had always been: a riddle beyond American solution.

Fredrik Logevall, a professor of history and international affairs at Harvard, is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam.”

A version of this review appears in print on January 14, 2018, on Page BR9 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Losing Hearts and Minds.


Asia Trip: President Donald Trump reports to The American People

November 16,2017

Asia Trip: President Donald Trump reports to The American People

– President Trump Delivers Statement on Asia Trip – President Trump Delivers Remarks to the American People, November 15, 2017–The White House, Washington D.C

Full Text of President’s Statement to follow when it is available.–Din Merican

CNN Reports:

In Asia, Trump again finds success overseas easier than at home

US finds unlikely ally in Vietnam as Philippine President Duterte tilts to China

November 10, 2017

US finds unlikely ally in Vietnam as  Philippine President Duterte tilts to China

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US President Donald Trump may have left China for the final leg of his Asia tour, but the specter of Beijing will loom large over his discussions with Southeast Asian nations on the issues dominating the region.

At the core of much of what Trump will do, and what those nations hope he will accomplish during his visit, will depend on America’s ability to counter China’s growth and its ambitions.

China’s used development aid, closer diplomatic ties with nations like the Philippines, and its military expansiveness to spread its footprint in the region. How Trump decides to respond to this will be evidenced during a series of key meetings.

On Friday, Trump will come face-to-face with the outwardly anti-American president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte at the APEC summit in Danang, Vietnam. The US President will then participate in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders’ Meeting, before delivering a speech at the APEC CEO Summit, the White House has said.

On Saturday, he will travel to Hanoi for an official visit and bilateral meetings with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang and other senior Vietnamese officials.

‘America has lost now’

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Being an American ally has been in the DNA of the Philippines for decades, says Alexander Neill, a Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore. The former American colony is the oldest partner the United States has had in the region, but it is a tumultuous history the two nations share, with political, defense and economic challenges that have at times caused friction that has brought them to the brink of diplomatic divorce.

“It’s a relationship that, if handled in the right way, could be promising,” Neill told CNN. “As a businessman, Trump is going to be wanting to convince the Philippines of the risks of putting too many eggs in the Chinese basket.”

It was this time last year that Philippines’ Duterte announced in Beijing that “America has lost now. I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow.” He told his Chinese hosts that he may also “go to Russia to talk to (President Vladimir) Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world: China, Philippines and Russia. It’s the only way.”

Duterte, known for speaking brashly later backtracked on his comments, insisting what he’d referred to in Beijing was not “a severance of ties,” and that he wasn’t cutting diplomatic relations. “What I was really saying,” he told reporters, “was a separation of foreign policy.”

Whether this so-called “separation” bears out will likely depend on Duterte and Trump’s personal relationship. Duterte, whose savage dislike of former President Barack Obama was well known, has promised to “deal with President Trump in the most righteous way,” when the two meet in Manila. Though he has also said he will “listen to him, what he has to say.”  Trump has invited Duterte to the White House

“If you’re going to do a character analysis Trump and Duterte are a perfect match,” said Neil. “These two guys see eye to eye and I think there’s evidence to suggest that all of this animosity and rhetoric between the US and the Philippines has died down quite considerably.”

Trump, in a phone call to the Philippines leader in May, told Duterte he was doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem,” referring to the 14-month long crackdown on the drug trade in the Philippines which human rights groups claim thousands of people have been killed, many without due process. Duterte has rejected international criticism of the campaign.

But it is also possible that the two leaders’ personal dynamic could become damaging, says Aaron Connelly from the Lowy Institute. “Duterte is a lot like Trump, he’s sort of an unpredictable character and clearly the leaders who work best with Trump are the ones who are sort of willing to bury their ego and do things that appeal to Trump’s ego,” Connelly said.

As examples, he pointed to French President Emmanuel Macron’s hosting Trump during Bastille Day celebrations, or Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s gifting of a golden golf club that helped mollify the American president.


Duterte may not be able to overcome his animosity towards the United States, Connelly said. “He’s the first Philippines president from Mindanao and he brings with him all the baggage that involves,” he said. “He grew up with his grandmother telling him stories of American atrocities on Moro during the colonial period.
One of Duterte’s grandparents was Muslim and some of his grandchildren are Muslim, and he regards himself as half Muslim because he’s half-Moro, so he has some real anti-American feelings and he’s very loathe to acknowledge any of the assistance the US has provided in Marawi,” added Connelly, referring to the embattled city where US forces have helped Philippine security forces battle ISIS fighters.
And he has turned to China most effusively, joining the One Belt, One Road trade and investment initiative Beijing launched earlier this year, which offers billions in funding to developing countries. He has also reportedly muted his opposition of China’s claims in the disputed South China Sea, even as the US beefs up its maritime presence in the region.

Vietnam’s pivot to the West

In contrast, Vietnam, which since the Clinton administration has been the subject of back-and-forth diplomacy, is now viewed as a key partner for Washington and worthy of a more sustained relationship.
President Bill Clinton’s visit to Hanoi was the first by a sitting US president since the end of the Vietnam War. It paved the way for a meeting in 2015 between President Obama and the general secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Nguyen Phu Trong.
The meeting violated protocol, the Atlantic reported, because the general secretary was not a head of state. “But the goals trumped decorum: Obama wanted to lobby the Vietnamese on the Trans-Pacific Partnership — his negotiators soon extracted a promise from the Vietnamese that they would legalize independent labor unions — and he wanted to deepen cooperation on strategic issues.”
The Obama administration officials also reportedly said that Vietnam would “one day soon host a permanent US military presence to check the ambitions of the country it now fears most, China.”
Trump pulled the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal but military cooperation with Hanoi continues. Defense Secretary James Mattis told his Vietnamese counterparts in August to expect a visit from a US aircraft carrier next year, the first such visit since the Vietnam War ended in 1975.
Vietnam’s growing closeness to the United States is an increasing irritant to China, says Connelly. “For the Vietnamese, the threat has always come from the north. They would say ‘we’ve been aggressively visited by many great powers over the course of our history, whether it’s the French or the US, but the longterm strategic concern has always been China,'” he said.
These concerns are underscored by the two countries’ ongoing dispute over islands in the South China Sea. China’s claims to the South China Sea stretch roughly 1,000 miles from its southern shores, and include energy rich areas also claimed by Vietnam.
In July of this year, Vietnam suspended oil drilling in contested waters in the South China Sea, after alleged threats from China. “Over the course of a millennia they (the Vietnamese) were able to maintain their independence from China throughout that period, and they’re incredibly proud of that,” added Connelly. “For them, having partners like the US to help them build up their maritime abilities and to continue to make sure the US is engaged in the region is really important.”

An opportunity for Trump to exploit

During the Vietnamese prime minister’s visit to the White House in May, the two countries signed $8 billion worth of commercial deals and discussed the transfer of a decommissioned US Coast Guard cutter to the Vietnamese coast guard which is designed to patrol coastal waters. The US has also transferred six patrol boats to Vietnam.
Washington has relaxed its arms embargo against Hanoi and its solidifying relationship with the Vietnamese stands in marked contrast to Hanoi’s seemingly deteriorating one with Beijing.
In June representatives from Vietnam and China met in Hanoi, but the gathering finished early when Chinese officials broke off the summit reportedly over Vietnam’s outreach to Japan and the US, as well as its objections to China’s continued buildup of disputed islands in the South China Sea.
“The Sino-Vietnamese relationship is quite fraught in many ways, but that said, I think the business community and potential investors and cross-border trade, it’s a huge relationship there,” said Alexander Neill.
“China’s economic weight is on Vietnam’s doorstep, but the military to military relationship is not good at the moment. If the US decides to exploit that to some degree it will serve as an irritant to President Xi Jinping and the People’s Liberation Army.”

DJ Trump may repeat a tragic history

November 7, 2017

DJ Trump may repeat a tragic history

by Dr. Fareed

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s comprehensive documentary series on the Vietnam War is filled with the stories and voices of ordinary soldiers on all sides of the conflict. But the most tragic aspect of the tale, for me, was hearing President Lyndon B. Johnson on tape, before full U.S. engagement, admitting that the war could not be won. Johnson’s dilemma is one that presidents dread facing — and one that President Trump is bringing upon himself with North Korea and Iran.

In May 1964, when the United States had fewer than 20,000 troops in Vietnam, serving as advisers and trainers, Johnson said to his national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, “I just stayed awake last night thinking about this thing. . . . It just worries the hell out of me. I don’t see what we can ever hope to get out of there with once we’re committed. . . . I don’t think that we can fight them 10,000 miles away from home and ever get anywhere in that area. I don’t think it’s worth fighting for, and I don’t think we can get out.”

“I look at this sergeant of mine this morning,” Johnson continued. “He’s got six little old kids . . . What in the hell am I ordering him out there for? What the hell is Vietnam worth to me? . . . What is it worth to this country?”

Johnson was asking all the right questions. He understood that Vietnam was not actually vital and that it could easily become a quagmire. And yet, he could never bring himself to the logical conclusion — withdrawal. Like so many presidents before and after him, he could not see how he could admit failure. No president could do that. In another conversation, with his mentor from the Senate, Richard Russell, Johnson speculated that “they’d impeach a president, though, that’d run out [of Vietnam], wouldn’t they?”

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The Exceptional American President Donald J. Trump: Dare anyone question the nation’s special brand of amazingness, for America is not just great, it is singularly the greatest. If you do not believe it’s so, then you must be an enemy of the state. And so, as the self-anointed greatest sovereign nation of all, it must necessarily follow that we Americans should feel superior. But ask an American what exactly accounts for our nation’s exceptionalism, what makes us so much better than Sweden and Norway and Holland and Mauritius and New Zealand and Japan, and they can scarcely tell you.–

And so, because the President of the United States could not think of a way to admit that the United States needed to reverse course, Johnson increased troop levels in Vietnam from fewer than 20,000 to more than 500,000, tearing apart Indochina, American society and his presidency. The example is dramatic, but it is generally true that in foreign policy, when the United States is confronted with a choice between backing down and doubling down, it follows the latter course.

In two crucial arenas, North Korea and Iran, Trump has dramatically raised the risks for the United States, and for no good reason. Determined to seem tougher than his predecessor, he has set out maximalist positions on both countries. He wants a totally denuclearized North Korea and an Iran that stops making ballistic missiles and stops supporting proxy forces in countries such as Syria, Iraq and Yemen. There is a vanishingly small possibility that North Korea and Iran will simply capitulate because Washington demands it. And if they don’t, what will Trump do? Will he back down or double down? And where will this escalation end?

Trump seems to view international negotiations as he does business deals. He has to win. But there is one big difference. In the international arena, the other person also has to worry about domestic politics. He or she cannot appear to lose either.

As a leading businessperson recently said to me, “Trump is playing a two-person negotiation, thinking it’s just him and the other guy, two principals, making a deal, as in business. But actually there are people outside the room — the two nations’ publics — that place huge constraints on the negotiators. It’s not a two-person game at all.”

For any international negotiation to succeed, there has to be some element of “win-win.” Otherwise, the other side simply will not be able to sell the deal back home. But Trump seems to believe above all that he must win and the other side must lose.

A senior Mexican official told me that there would have been a way to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, even find a way to fund the border wall, “but Trump needed to allow us to also declare some kind of victory, give us some concessions. Instead he started out by humiliating us and made it impossible for [President Enrique] Peña Nieto to make a deal. After all, no Mexican government can be seen to simply surrender to Washington.”

Trump’s way of negotiating might have worked in his past life, although there, too, many argue it was not the way to build a great reputation. But he’s not doing real-estate deals anymore. The arena is different, the conditions are far more complex, and the stakes are higher — astronomically higher.

In Asia: Will he be a Presidential or Rowdy Trump?

In Asia: Is he a Presidential or Rowdy Trump?

by David

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Diplomacy is a low key, under-the-radar sort of business.That’s not President Donald Trump’s style at all. He seems to enjoy making waves. He craves attention and despises detail. Supporting his 12-day trip to East Asia will test the mettle of five Ambassadors and their staffs. 

Good diplomacy doesn’t make waves. Diplomats seek to achieve their nation’s objectives by means short of war. In the modern era, they coordinate activities intended to enmesh other nations in a web of relationships that’s so mutually profitable, so central to their own well-being, that war is unthinkable.

American diplomats preside over the broadest array of such activities, chiefly including trade relations, military, legal and intelligence cooperation, humanitarian and development assistance and a remarkably diverse portfolio of science and health objectives. Typically it’s a low key, under-the-radar sort of business.

That’s not President Donald Trump’s style at all. He seems to enjoy making waves. He craves attention and despises detail. Supporting his 12-day trip to East Asia will test the mettle of five ambassadors and their staffs. That’s not because they know Trump scorns their profession, but because at every stop there’s ample opportunity for Trump to drop a clanger.

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The American president’s first stops are Tokyo and Seoul, two capitals already made jittery by his polemical exchanges with North Korea’s dictator. In 1951, the US pledged to defend Japan in the event of an attack. In return, Japan pledged to forgo offensive military capabilities – a commitment manifested in its reliance on the American nuclear umbrella. In 1953, the US and South Korea reached a similar understanding. Sustaining the Korean and Japanese governments’ confidence that the US would truly be willing to use its nuclear weapons to defend them has been a consistent objective of US diplomacy.

And now Trump, who has warned that North Korea “will be met with fire and fury” if it attacks the United States with nuclear weapons but has conspicuously failed to remind Pyongyang that Washington is also pledged to defend South Korea and Japan. He has rattled the leadership of both allies. The lavish receptions awaiting him there may feed the US president’s ego but are unlikely to leave them any more confident that he’ll stand with them come what may from Pyongyang.

Perhaps Trump has learned a few things about the ordinary conduct of foreign affairs since his first foray abroad to Saudi Arabia and to the NATO headquarters in Brussels. Even so, the US president’s repeated gaffes on that trip have fueled US diplomats’ apprehension that at any time he may just wing it, improvising remarks that, if they don’t cause a flap, at the least undermine his foreign peers’ confidence in American constancy.

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Put another way, senior leaders are expected to watch their words and control their impulses. Consider China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, for example. Wang was in Hanoi last week, and just afterward (and with a straight face), a senior aide told reporters that Wang and Vietnamese representatives ”reached an important consensus. Both sides will uphold the principle of friendly consultations and dialogue to jointly manage and control maritime disputes, and protect the bigger picture of developing Sino-Vietnam relations and stability in the South China Sea.”

Consider also Wang’s principal interlocutor, Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh, whose press statement said he’d proposed that the two countries resolve disputes based on common sense and international law.

Neither Wang nor Minh were grandstanding, nor is peace about to break out along the infamous nine-dash line.  In fact, the two officials were for the most part repeating a several year-old formula, one that’s been of no perceptible utility in the resolution of the maritime disputes but, having been said again, has papered over recent unpleasantness, thus enabling the neighbors to get on with other business.

(Minh, however, took care to remind Wang of the relevance of international law, a pointed riposte to China’s rejection of a tribunal’s ruling that its infamous nine-dashed line is illegal.)

When heads of government go abroad, they function as diplomats. Like diplomats, they should leave politics and personal whims at home. If they can’t behave constructively when matters of national security and prosperity are at stake, they are at least expected to behave predictably and prudently.

Trump hasn’t yet shown that he’s capable of coloring inside those lines.

David Brown is a retired US diplomat with wide experience in Vietnam and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.