Navigating the Trump era

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Navigating the Trump era

We are facing a transitional period of chaos and unpredictability around the world. The North Korean crisis has grown more serious as Pyongyang advances its nuclear and missile capabilities. China is implementing an increasingly aggressive foreign policy, while Japan and the United States are making strategies to hedge the China factor. The postwar global order based on liberalism and democracy is becoming vulnerable as polarization, nationalism, extremism, populism and anti-globalization deepen around the world.

Domestically, we are facing an unprecedented crisis from a leadership vacuum caused by a disruption in constitutional order. Amid such developments, the election of Donald Trump as the next U.S. president is significantly affecting Korea’s foreign affairs direction. Responding to this change is a serious task.

The recent U.S. election largely focused on the country’s domestic issues, and it is hard to predict the foreign policy direction of the incoming administration based on Trump’s campaign. His remarks were often based on distortions, and he frequently recanted statements. Because Trump is not an established politician, we have little data on which to assess him. But the direction of his foreign policy can still be inferred based on the limited information we have.

The incoming administration will likely opt for strong isolationism and unilateralism, as Trump’s “America First” policy and pledges to rebuild the U.S. worked effectively to win over the angry white working class. Unlike George W. Bush’s active unilateralism based on neoconservative principles, Trump’s policy will likely be passive unilateralism focused on the United States’ core interests.

Given the antiglobalization sentiments reflected in his economic platforms, the Trump administration will likely make more bilateral approaches to improve American interests rather than resort to multilateral approaches. The U.S. will likely leave the Trans-Pacific Partnership and North American Free Trade Agreement. It will likely revise the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and impose higher tariffs on Chinese products. In terms of security, the United States will likely demand that allies share more of the burden and implement an “offshore balancing” strategy.
Since Trump is an outsider who lacks diplomatic experience and insight, how his administration decides on the specifics of foreign policy will be key. Michael Flynn, Trump’s pick for national security adviser; James Mattis, defense secretary nominee; and Mike Pompeo, the nominee for CIA director, are all hard-liners with a military background. Based on these choices, Trump will likely promote peace by power and emphasize the military’s role in foreign policy. It remains to be seen how it will be coordinated with Trump’s isolationism.

Trump’s pragmatic and ideology-free tendency as an entrepreneur will also likely give priority to interests over values. It will focus more on balance of interests than the balance of power. Because he was elected as an outsider, Trump is free from the influence of interest groups. He is also a veteran negotiator and won’t be afraid of making calculated yet unconventional moves to achieve his goals. His tradition-breaking call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen is an example.

In order to perform his job as president, Trump will need to make a compromise with mainstream Republicans. As such, his positions that were contrary to traditional Republican policies will likely be altered. His picks for key posts already show that compromise.

In three key regions — East Asia, the Middle East and Europe — it is unclear how he will distribute the United States’ limited foreign affairs resources. Recent movements in the Philippines and Malaysia show that U.S. influence in the East Asian region will diminish if it leaves the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It remains to be seen how Trump will manage U.S.-China relations. Also key will be whether he resets relations with Russia through compromises on Syria and Ukraine in order to concentrate on checking China, and whether he will focus on pressuring Iran to make the Middle East a top priority as agreed by Republican factions.

Polls in major countries about Trump’s victory showed Korea had the most negative reaction to the outcome. He is an unfamiliar face to Koreans, and concerns were high about the future of Korea-U.S. relations. But there is no reason to be pessimistic. A clean slate can actually be an opportunity.

We must concentrate our efforts to resolve our most important foreign affairs challenge: the North Korean nuclear crisis. We must come up with a pragmatic resolution and persuade the Trump administration to reflect it in its policy priorities. At the same time, we must create some specific carrot and stick measures to prepare for resumed negotiations as well as a possible timeline for talks. Pushing Washington without a feasible proposal will only backfire.

Trump’s remarks on Korea were largely based on misunderstanding. It is, therefore, urgent to inform the incoming administration of the correct facts. Korea’s defense cost share is far higher than those of NATO and Japan when factoring in land costs.

Furthermore, we must find our leverage in future negotiations with the United States. Pre-emptively resolving delayed issues on the Korea-U.S. free trade deal will foster an amicable conditions ahead of talks with Washington. The Korea-U.S. alliance is a bilateral relationship.

We must negotiate fairly and squarely and make the best use of unavoidable burdens to benefit our economy and national defense.

We must prepare for upcoming changes in U.S. foreign policy. Our room to maneuver will widen when U.S.-Russia relations improve, but our room to maneuver will shrink if U.S.-China relations sour. Although the power vacuum in Korea caused by the latest political scandal is unfortunate, the government must get a grip and wisely navigate through this difficult situation.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 13, Page 29

*The author, a former ambassador to Japan, is a senior adviser at law firm Shin & Kim.

Shin Gak-soo
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