Spearhead Analysis – 27.02.2017
By Shirin Naseer
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research
Part of the world’s highest-stakes guessing game, allies and adversaries alike are constantly struggling to decipher the direction of US national security policy. Presently, US foreign policy feels incoherent and remarkably inconsistent, to say the least. Far from a “well-oiled machine”, as President Trump once put it, his administration appears instead desperately out of sync and constantly putting out fires ignited by Trump himself.
Uncertainty and confusion in the present administration may not exclusively be evidence of inexperience, naivety and inevitable first-month instability, although that may be part of it. Trump is of the view that a president should use “the element of surprise” to keep opponents “off balance”. In Trump’s case however, policy positions seem to alter depending on who the President last spoke to.
The disconnect between Trump’s way and the administration’s was stark on the matter of the Israel-Palestine conflict. At first, Trump implied that the US no longer feels committed to a two-state solution. Only twenty four hours later, his United Nations envoy said, “We absolutely support a two-state solution,” and that the administration wanted a “thinking out of the box” approach to finding a solution to the conflict.
In March last year, Trump suggested South Korea might need to take its defense into its own hands. President Trump had claimed during his campaign that allies would have to pull more weight financially to continue receiving protection from America. He suggested an indigenous nuclear capability as a solution to South Korea’s problems with North Korea and China, after which South Korea was visibly concerned that the US might abandon its commitment to South Korean security—leaving the country vulnerable to threats and confrontation from a militarily powerful North Korea.
On January 30, however, Trump went back to reiterating commitment to acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn for the defense of South Korea. Whether Trump still expects allies to pay more for American protection, as he suggested during his campaign, remains unclear.
Given US Defense Secretary James Mattis’s trip to South Korea and Japan earlier this month and Trump’s January 30 statements, the administration appears to be, once again, walking back some of the campaign rhetoric. After all, deterring North Korea and China is also a priority for the US.
Mounting anxieties over erratic US foreign policy choices crystallized this year at the Munich Security Conference (MSC). Trump sent a high-powered delegation led by US Vice President Pence, and followed by the US Secretary of State Tillerson and US Defence Secretary Mattis.
Anticipation was particularly high in the run-up to Munich as this year’s conference was to represent the new US administration’s first major attempt to articulate its Europe policy.
Since his election, Trump’s volatility miffed most of the international community: Trump’s highly ambivalent stance on Russian aggression, his “America First” foreign policy philosophy, his inclination to undercut status quo organizations such as the UN and NATO, the likely abandonment of the two-state solution on the Israel-Palestine conflict and Trump back-tracking after initially challenging China’s One China principle– all worried the international community about US commitment to peace and security. European leaders were particularly skittish because they felt Trump’s support for NATO was ‘transactional’ and dependent on how much each chipped into the alliance coffers.
Guardians of global security seemed on edge awaiting the chance to weigh up the new US leadership’s approach to collective defense as Mattis took the stage.
Overall, Mattis tamped down Trump’s campaign rhetoric and stressed Washington’s abiding interest in continuing the trans-Atlantic alliance.
Contrary to what President Trump had said, Mattis spoke of a pivot towards convention: “The trans-Atlantic bond remains our strongest bulwark against instability and violence. I am confident that we will strengthen our partnerships, confronting those who choose to attack innocent people or our democratic processes and freedoms.”
Mike Pence reiterated that the US remains committed to NATO when he spoke at the MSC and attempted to quell tensions on concerns that Trump might deal directly with Putin, bypassing Western Europe.
The ‘NATO redundancy debate’ took off first during Trump’s campaign days throughout which Trump severely criticized NATO. Trump’s stance was welcomed not only by many in Europe who opposed NATO’s continuance, but also by Russia and China for geopolitical reasons.
After Russia’s military intervention in the Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, the perception of a Russian threat to European security and stability has resurfaced. On the other hand, the breakdown of a legally defined international order is being hastened by an expansionist China, that has been aggressively pursuing entry into US’s security architecture of the Asia Pacific region. China’s attempt to intimidate regional countries involved in South China Sea disputes, its disdain for UN court rulings, its recent show of force over Taiwan, and its refusal to curb North Korea’s nuclear weapons build-up is throwing significant challenges to the global order.
In the years to come, security and stability in Europe and the Asia Pacific region will be seriously affected by both Russia and China’s policy decisions. The Russian Foreign Minister asserted at the MSC that radical change is essential to create a ‘New World Order’, one that will not be controlled by or dependent on the US and its allies.
More recently however Trump has of course signaled backtracking on his previous position on NATO with statements from both Pence and Mattis making headlines earlier this month.
James Mattis went to NATO headquarters and told allies that US commitment to NATO remains unequivocally firm. However, he followed this with a warning that the US might “moderate” support if other NATO members do not spend more on military– reiterating a core part of Trump’s position on the issue.
In the past, annual meetings at Munich focused on a single threat common to all participating countries; during the Cold War it was the Soviet Union, post-Soviet it was Russia and then a rising China. After the Soviet collapse, the US declared a ‘uni-polar’ world, placing itself at its center. However, this was short-lived. What we see now is a ‘tri-polar- world’ with the US, Russia and China– dominating and competing within it.
Owing to the change in geopolitical dynamics, this year’s Munich conference was a stark break from tradition. Trump has shown potential to bring about lasting and serious disruption when he attempted to enforce a travel ban. The man is not all talk and this display of power did not go unnoticed by global leaders.
The MSC this year resultantly was most about putting unprecedented levels of strategic stress to rest. Debate focused on uncertainty surrounding the new US administration and US relationship with other countries in the region.
The Trump administration’s statements at the MSC were a reassuring departure from Trump’s past remarks, which seemed to move towards a unilateralist and nationalist approach.However, there are still additional issues that need to be addressed, even if we are to believe Trump is truly interested in changing the direction of his foreign policy strategy.
Under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese government has grown more authoritarian in its domestic policies, more protectionist in its economic policies, and more aggressive on foreign policy and security matters. US’s recent back-tracking on the One China Policy can been understood as Trump setting aside his long-held confrontational attitude and adopting a more conciliatory tone—which is a positive change. However, dramatically changing the “long-held bipartisan strategy of engaging China from a principled position of strength” which includes a combination of regional alliances and consistent support for a rules-based international order may put US at a disadvantage. Dealing with China from what now could be perceived as an “unprincipled position of weakness” could make it difficult for the US to check Beijing’s policy decisions when the need arises.
The Trump team is presently faced with several foreign policy challenges; to a name few: making NATO and Europe the center of US relations in Eurasia, strengthening US-Japan and US-South Korea ties, bringing the Sunni Arab world and Israel closer to create a bulwark against Iran, replacing the Trans-Pacific Partnership with bilateral pacts before China can take advantage of the vacuum, improving tense US-Mexico relations and building ties with Colombia (an emerging powerhouse in Latin America), securing India as a potential long-term partner and counterweight to an expansionary China, and confronting Russian aggression with international pressure.
As for Pakistan, it is critical that the foreign office works on filling gaps in the country’s existing strategy on outreach to the Trump team-if there is any such strategy at all. As America lays the groundwork for a new foreign policy, Pakistan must act quickly. The tenor of Trump’s outreach to Pakistan during the Trump-Sharif phone call surprised many who expected Trump to take a hardline against Islamabad. PM Nawaz’s special assistant on foreign affairs, Tariq Fatemi, spent a week in Washington and reportedly failed to hold familiarization meetings with the Trump team. Later reports followed saying that Fatemi did in fact meet with members of the Trump team but was asked to keep the meeting details private. At the Senate Armed Forces Committee in January, James Mattis underlined the need to stay engaged with Pakistan, while also asking the country to do more to curb terrorism in the region. Gen Nicholson the US military commander in Afghanistan has asked for more troops. With India making significant headway in reaching out to Trump’s team, Pakistan needs to develop a clear foreign policy that will ensure its interests are protected.
This is a critical time for US foreign policy. It will be useful for leaders globally to pursue cooperation in areas of mutual interest, and remain in contact with the Trump administration to ensure their interests are protected while Trump is busy reexamining old policy positions.