Samantha Vinograd: Trump's trip abroad could go disastrously if he fails to heed some key lessons
To ensure success, Trump must negotiate wisely and avoid coming off like a bully, she writes
Editor’s Note: Samantha Vinograd is a CNN national security analyst who served on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council from 2009-2013. Follow her @sam_vinograd. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
Presidential trips can be a strong policy instrument when wielded correctly. But when poorly planned or executed, time abroad can result in irrevocable blows to US national security.
I traveled extensively with President Obama, and even under the best of circumstances the pace, the number of meetings and public events and the need to literally pivot from one country to the next made these trips complex.
In today’s unsettling security landscape, the range and depth of national security issues at play in the Asia-Pacific – from North Korea’s nuclear program and ethnic cleansing in Myanmar to extrajudicial killings in the Philippines and Russian cyberattacks – make every minute of presidential travel critical to achieving gains for Americans’ security.
This is the tough backdrop for President Trump’s journey to Japan, the Republic of Korea, China, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Hawaii – a 12-day trip that starts Friday. While in Asia, the President will engage in a grueling schedule of bilateral meetings, public events and regional summits – all opportunities to either advance US national security interests or do damage to our already tarnished global reputation.
Trump’s specific objectives are important to mention, but there’s a “due-out” that the White House didn’t put into its official statement about the trip: Convincing our allies, and our enemies, that the US remains a global leader.
To send a clear message of continued US leadership, President Trump should heed some key lessons.
Leaders do what they say
US credibility abroad has taken a hit under Trump. Friends and foes alike are often left wondering whether and when his administration will decide to drop out of an international agreement or bluster on Twitter rather than actually do anything. This has serious implications for countries like South Korea, where Trump is scheduled to have a bilateral meeting with President Moon Jae-In and visit service members.
Moon is likely entering these meetings wondering if he can take the President at his word and if Trump’s pledge to “totally destroy” North Korea is possible and his preferred course of action.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis indicated last week that the US won’t tolerate a nuclear North Korea. Kim Jong Un will likely be watching these meetings closely for clues as to whether Trump and Moon have similar courses of action regarding his country. He may even choose to launch another rocket during the President’s visit to the region.
Trump needs to privately convince Moon that he is both prepared and willing to act decisively (in ways other than bullying tweets) while acknowledging South Korea’s concerns over civilian casualties on the Peninsula.
Negotiating doesn’t mean failure
The President likes to laud his credentials as a deal maker, but after pulling the US out of the TPP and the Paris Climate Accord, his willingness to actually negotiate is unclear, which resonates in Japan.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s election victory has given him new strength domestically, and he’s keen to reform Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, which prohibits Japan from having a standing military. As fears over North Korea and an increasingly powerful China dominate Japanese defense concerns, Abe will likely want to talk with Trump about defense.
Also likely to be on the agenda is negotiation of trade issues. Beef exports, auto parts trade and drug pricing are on the minds of the Japanese, as is the prospect of a bilateral free trade agreement. To bolster confidence in America’s leadership, President Trump should communicate a desire to put real capital behind negotiating paths forward that meet both countries’ interests.
‘Great power relations’ doesn’t mean being a sycophant or a bully
Over the last few years, the US and China have described their bilateral relationship as one between “great powers.” But that relationship is now strongly tipping in favor of China.
Fresh off the heels of the 19th Party Congress, President Xi Jinping is stronger than ever and has a blank check to pursue all of his domestic and regional ambitions. Xi knows that flattering Trump throws him off guard, so he will probably roll out the red carpet.
China is filling the void left by America’s recent and noticeable withdrawal from key international agreements and forums. The United States will suffer another blow to our global standing if Trump fails to talk to Xi – and to share a real readout of those discussions publicly – about tough issues like trade, intellectual property theft and cybersecurity while in Beijing.
Playing a round of golf with Xi may be a good photo op, but if he doesn’t focus on business he’ll come out of his time in China looking more naive.
The White House has announced that the President is skipping the East Asia Summit (EAS), which will leave more room for the leaders of Russia and China to dominate the discussion at the summit. It’s a major downside risk to our national security to let China and Russia steer security discussions because our interests are not aligned.
Supporting regional institutions bolsters US standing
While President Trump has shied away from continuing many of President Obama’s legacies, his meetings in Vietnam and the Philippines are prime opportunities to show his belief that regional institutions are key to supporting stability, a key pillar of President Obama’s foreign policy strategy.
Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), a forum of 21 Pacific Rim countries, can be major supporters of facilitating US trade and economic growth. US retrenchment from empowering APEC and other intergovernmental organizations like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will ensure that America misses out on important initiatives that our neighbors are pursuing and further cut the US off from important economic and trade discussions.
At APEC and ASEAN, President Trump will have countless bilateral meetings as well. As his schedule comes together, his team should prepare him with talking points that balance all of these themes. From Russia President Vladimir Putin to Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte – who Trump will visit in Manila – General H.R. McMaster and the National Security Council should have specific, credible answers to what will happen if the Russians attack the United States again with information warfare or Duterte fails to stop thousands of alleged extrajudicial killings by the Philippine National Police.
A misstep in the Philippines could give Duterte a perceived blank check to condone the killings further. And another missed opportunity to hold the Russians accountable for their illegal actions will send the message to them – and other bad actors – that they can just do it again.
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The trip to Asia could be a first step toward repositioning the United States for global leadership after a tough few months. Failing to act like a leader while overseas, however, could instead push the US further into the background as new leaders rise in power.
National security shouldn’t be a partisan issue, and we should all hope that the President begins to act like a leader during his time in Asia. Our safety depends on it.