alliances, allies, Asia, Bloomberg View, China, David Ignatius, foreign policy establishment, Hal Brands, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, Soviet Union, The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, Trade, Trump, Washington Post, Yalta
President Trump’s recent Asia trip – or, more specifically, the chattering class commentary it keeps generating – is the gift that keeps on giving, especially for a blogger. I can’t remember a foreign policy event that has generated so much material from so many mainstays making of the nation’s foreign policy blob making so clear how systematically they fail tests of basic competence, common sense, and even internal consistency .
It’s long been clear that you don’t get ahead in America’s bipartisan foreign policy establishment with thinking that even peeks outside the box, but I had always thought that this hidebound crowd at least valued minimal knowledge. The November 14 essay by the Washington Post‘s David Ignatius casts doubt even on that proposition.
As Ignatius sees it, “Trump’s trip may indeed prove to be historic, but probably not in the way he intends. It may signal a U.S. accommodation to rising Chinese power, plus a desire to mend fences with a belligerent Russia — with few evident security gains for the United States. If the 1945 Yalta summit marked U.S. acceptance of the Soviet Union’s hegemony in Eastern Europe, this trip seemed to validate China’s arrival as a Pacific power.”
I had to read this passage several times before convincing myself it was actually written. For although it’s entirely legitimate to question Mr. Trump’s approach to China, the historical comparison indicated is jaw-droppingly ignorant. In fact, it amounts to endorsing a narrative about the beginning of the Cold War that’s been emphatically rejected by all students of the period outside the ranks of the lunatic right.
After all, evoking Yalta as an example of appeasement requires believing that the United States (with or without the help of the United Kingdom and France) could have done something to prevent the Soviet Union from establishing control over what would become the Iron Curtain countries. Why is this preposterous? Because literally millions of Red Army soldiers were occupying the region. Can anyone this side of sane really suppose that, after nearly four years of costly conflict with Nazi Germany – and with six months left of brutal combat against Japan – American leaders were going to turn on Moscow?
Just as important, although nothing done by President Trump indicates any desire to recognize China as a superior or even a co-equal in the Asia-Pacific region (as made clear here), there’s no question that China has been catching up to the United States economically and militarily. So why didn’t Ignatius broach the question of “Why?” Could it be because the reckless trade expansion with China backed enthusiastically by the entire foreign and economic policy establishment has transferred literally trillions of dollars worth of trade profits and defense-related technology to Beijing? So there’s another test Ignatius has flunked – that of intellectual honesty. (Interestingly, Ignatius himself seems to have been silent on the issue when it was being debated heatedly in the late 1990s and into 2000.)
Hal Brands’ Bloomberg View essay on the same subject two days later shows off another feature of establishment foreign policy thinking that’s all too common: trafficking in euphemisms aimed at hoodwinking the public – and, no doubt, unsophisticated politicians. According to Brands, a senior professor at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, the Trump visit reminded Americans and Asians once again that the president
“is blind to the importance of trade and commercial openness in underpinning America’s key security relationships. The president praised America’s tradition of defense cooperation with Japan, yet he continued to harangue Tokyo over its trade surplus with the U.S. Administration officials sought to foster enhanced multilateral cooperation on regional security issues, yet Trump reiterated his previous condemnations of the multilateral trade deals that previous administrations had seen as necessary complements to those defense relationships.”
Further, Mr. Trump seemed oblivious to how, “In the broadest sense, U.S. security and economic relationships have long gone hand-in-hand. Liberal trade practices have provided the economic lubricant for military partnerships, and reinforced the idea that America’s interactions with its closest friends are positive-sum rather than zero-sum.”
“Likewise,” he Brands writes, “allies have deferred to Washington on geopolitical issues not just because of the military protection the U.S. provides but because of its critical role in advancing an open international economy from which those allies benefit enormously.”
“Trade deals that [have] been “necessary complements to…defense relationships.” “Liberal trade practices [that] have provided the economic lubricant for military partnerships.” “Allies deferring “to Washington on geopolitical issues not just because of the military protection the U.S. provides but because of its critical role in advancing an open international economy from which those allies benefit enormously.”
Judging from these phrases, the longstanding status quo in East Asia has been so farsighted, so mutually beneficial, and even so warm and fuzzy and pleasingly symmetrical, that only a knave, a fool, or both would want it undermined. But translated into plain, euphemism and metaphor-free English, what Brands is saying is that the arrangements he believes Mr. Trump wants to shake up require the United States not only to bear the vast bulk of the burden of (rapidly growing, and increasingly nuclear) military risk, but most of the economic costs as well (both in the form of outsized defense spending and wildly lopsided trade flows).
And despite the “enormous” benefits enjoyed by the allies, if the United States doesn’t keep delivering on both grounds, these Asian countries will (a) be fully justified in questioning Washington’s reliability, and even telling the Seventh Fleet and the U.S. nuclear umbrella, to pack up stakes and return home; and (b) will be sorely tempted to do so.
Brands has every right to argue that the United States should expose itself to the ever greater danger of nuclear attack (from North Korea or China) on behalf of countries that insist on remaining free to shut American producers out of their markets, and that subsidize the destruction of U.S. jobs and output. He also has every right to contend that these allies will threaten to abandon security cooperation with the United States (and leave themselves more vulnerable to Chinese power) if Washington simply starts defending its legitimate economic interests.
But Brands has a corresponding obligation to state these views explicitly rather than follow well-worn establishment practice and cloak them in soothing cliches. While he’s at it, he might deign to explain to us peons how these approaches to Asia can possibly enhance the safety and well-being of the American people. And if he and the rest of the foreign policy blob refuse, the various media outlets that for so long have carried their work and helped propagate their messages should force them to lay their cards on the table – and at least expose the con job they’ve been pulling on the public.