Asia Awaits the Unknown

Asia Awaits the Unknown

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

After watching the behavior of President Trump over the past nine months let alone the past ten days the leaders of the five Asian countries who will be hosting President Trump beginning next week must be at a total loss as to what to expect when he begins his travels on November 4th. This longest foreign trip of his Presidency will include meetings with Government leaders in China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and Viet-Nam. While there will be much discussion of economic issues—especially following Trump’s withdrawal of the U.S. from the trans-Pacific Partnership—it undoubtedly will be the nuclear threat posed by North Korea which will dominate much of the discussion.

For the leaders of China, Japan, and South Korea, especially, it will be the challenge of the unknown behavior of the President which will be most unnerving.  Trump’s erratic and unpredictable behavior is matched by the fact that except for his “America First” slogan, foreign governments are totally mystified as to what U.S. foreign policy is and what direction the President will take in the period ahead.

U.S. foreign policy decision-making is in a shambles.  As has been true with every aspect of his presidency, Trump has evidenced no sense whatsoever as to how to govern and make policy; nor does he care to learn. Decision-making involves a process, but process is totally anathema to how Trump thinks and works. For the President, the process is what he says it is at any particular moment.

Traditional policy making involves inputs, discussion, and outputs. Trump determines the outputs he wants and those who work for him are instructed to convert his wishes to his desired ends. It appears that legitimate contrasting or challenging opinions are dismissed. Those who are foolish enough to present alternative ideas do not last very long.

Just as his efforts to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act failed because he was uninterested in the nuances of the legislative process, so too is Trump headed to a possible failure in enacting a tax cut and tax reform bill at least in part because of his consuming need to always be in control. This is in part why the concerns that Trump has voiced about a possible nuclear threat emanating from Pyongyang has made the entire region anxious. Anxieties exist not only because of the threat posed but because it appears no one has a sense of what Trump actually is considering to do in response to the threat.  

To date there appears to be no coordinated policy or definitive U.S. position articulated by the President except for insane, derogatory, insulting tweets and conflicting multiple internal messages from his Administration. Asia as well as the entire world watches U.S. foreign policy leadership disintegrate as the President plays leader. Policy mistakes and mis-readings driven by personal animosities and hostilities in dealing with friends and foes in this region can lead to nuclear catastrophes. This is why the nations awaiting the President’s visit have no idea what to expect. Trump cannot dismiss the concerns of China’s President Xi Jinping and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe the same way he does Senators Flake and Corker. 

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