Convention Fissures: The Asia Policy Angle



While the press has been focusing on Melania Trump’s speech and Senator Ted Cruz’s non-endorsement, the convention has also revealed fissures in the Republican party over foreign policy, including with respect to Asia. These can be seen by comparing the Republican Party platform with another long interview Mr. Trump has given to the New York Times’ David Sanger and Maggie Haberman as well as his convention remarks; earlier posts on the foreign policy positions of the candidates are linked below. Comments on the free-riding of alliances by Mr. Trump immediately triggered responses across the Atlantic, including from NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg and political leaders in the Baltics, with Korean news outlets voicing alarm as well. 

In a presidential system such as the US, party platforms have little if any meaning. They don’t constrain candidates in any way and are largely an insider game fought out among earnest policy wonks and political purists staking pet claims. Yet the Republican party platform is revealing for tacking away from a number of Mr. Trump’s more controversial foreign policy pronouncements, for example with respect to the alliances, trade and Asia.

The foreign policy section of the platform begins with a portrait of a world falling apart and four generic sections on rebuilding the military and supporting the armed forces, reservists and veterans. Only then does it turn to what the US would actually do. In the section on “U.S. Leadership in the Asian (sic) Pacific,” however, the document leads with a restatement of the fact that “we are a Pacific nation with economic, military, and cultural ties to all the countries of the oceanic rim and treaty alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand.” (The section on Europe similarly leads with an acknowledgement of bipartisan support for NATO before seguing into the burden-sharing complaints that were once again a theme of Mr. Trump’s convention speech).

Mr. Trump may think that talking tough to allies enhances bargaining leverage, but the result so far has been to call American credibility into question.

Korea actually leads the list of Asian issues, with North Korea identified as a “slave state.” The US will continue to demand the “complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program”—the formulation from the first George W. Bush administration—will lean on China and promise to counter any North Korean threats. Subsequent sections go on—in order—to discuss our commitment to Taiwan, China’s bad behavior, Southeast Asia’s democratic turn (minus any discussion of Thailand), India as a geostrategic ally, and trouble in Pakistan; Japan receives no further mention, a pretty striking omission from a security-oriented policy document.

The TPP also receives no explicit discussion, no doubt reflecting the candidate’s skepticism on trade deals which was on full display in his convention speech. But the document does return to more standard Republican support for free trade in general and trade agreements in particular, arguing that “when trade agreements have been carefully negotiated with friendly democracies, they have resulted in millions of new jobs here at home supported by our exports.” The platform even suggests the value of a multilateral agreement, although not mentioning the WTO explicitly: “a worldwide multilateral agreement among nations committed to the principles of open markets, what has been called a ‘Reagan Economic Zone,’ in which free trade will truly be fair trade for all concerned.”

Mr. Trump’s New York Times interview doubles down on the populist isolationism visible in earlier interviews. Indeed, as David Brooks noted in a recent column, Trump appears to be getting Trumpier. The interview again begins with what can only be called a debate between Trump, Sanger and Haberman over the value of alliances and the logic of deterrence, with Trump once again calling foreign commitments into question over their economic costs. With respect to Korea, he argues that the alliance has had no effect because North Korea has continued to develop its capabilities; he even suggests that had American troops not been present, “maybe you would have had a unified Korea.” And from which direction would unification have come minus the American response to the North Korean attack of 1950?

Sanger notes that one function of the alliances has been missile defense. After denigrating the value of the alliances in the first place, he then notes that such defenses are “obsolete,” even as we are upgrading them. He also claims that US nuclear forces are “obsolete,” again following a president that has committed hundreds of billions of dollars to upgrading the nuclear arsenal. After Sanger notes the value of forward-deployed forces for deterrence and defense, Trump reiterates the moral hazard argument against open-ended commitments and claims that the US could respond adequately to threats without forward-deployed forces.

With respect to Europe, Trump raises doubts about whether NATO commitments to the Baltic members would be upheld were those countries to come under Russian threat or even attack; it took less than 24 hours for an international and domestic firestorm to ensue over Trump’s remarks. Similar responses followed on trade, including from Asia. The party platform is completely out of synch with Mr. Trump’s promise in his NYT interview and convention remarks to scrap all existing trade agreements, starting with NAFTA. It took less than 24 hours for the Korean press to pick up on the implications for the KORUS.

As outside the bipartisan mainstream as they may appear, Mr. Trump’s views are not idiosyncratic to him; they are in fact reflective of growing disaffection among Republican ranks with the party’s internationalism. A recent report by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs documents findings I reported in an earlier post on a Pew research report on foreign policy preferences. The Chicago Council report, authored by Dina Smeltz, Karl Friedhoff and Craig Kafura similarly documents wide gaps in views between Trump supporters and Republicans favoring other candidates. In particular, Trump supporters were less inclined to see alliances as an effective foreign policy tool (34% to 42%), less likely to see NATO as essential to US security (44% to 61%), less likely to think that trade is good for the American economy (40% to 57%) and less likely to support the TPP in particular (47% to 58%). Among the many strange features of the current presidential campaign is a Democratic candidate who appears more willing to engage with the world—even on economic issues—than her Republican counterpart. Mr. Trump may think that talking tough to allies enhances bargaining leverage, but the result so far has been to call American credibility into question. 

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