What do we know at this point?Michael Green
The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.
I had thought that after the Iowa Caucuses and the New Hampshire Primary, the field of presidential contenders would narrow enough that we could begin seeing the contours of the general election debates that might impact Korea. Yet the Democratic primary remains the most open it has been in decades, with policy views ranging from democratic socialist Bernie Sanders’ on one end of the spectrum to billionaire and former Republican Mayor of New York Mike Bloomberg’s on the other. Nor is there any certainty about what Donald Trump might do in a second term if he is re-elected.
We can say one thing with some certainty at this point. The American body politic is pro-Korea, pro-alliance and pro-trade, at least according to the polls. Support for a continued U.S. presence on the Korean peninsula is also bipartisan and broad-based in Congress. These structural factors explain the continuity in U.S.-Korea relations over the past six administrations, despite campaign promises.
That is also generally true of Presidents going into their second terms. Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were all less unilateral, more multilateral, and more careful with allies than they had been in their first terms. Whether that proves true of Donald Trump will come down to how much he feels emboldened by re-election to trust his own instincts as a self-proclaimed “stable genius” rather than the considered judgments of his foreign policy team.
Thus far, experienced cabinet members like Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis have helped to blunt Trump’s worst instincts. But critics warn that the president has steadily ejected advisors like Mattis in favor of more pliable and less experienced generals and cabinet members.
Trump’s more extreme views do not appear to be dissipating, so the question in a second term is what happens to the views of those around him.
The Democrats have not engaged in real foreign policy debates because there are still so many of them. But we can discern some hint of their policy instincts at this point. There are essentially five lanes still open.
In the far-left lane, Bernie Sanders is sustaining momentum with his message of political revolution and socialist economic policies. If elected, he would likely try to slash military spending to a degree where forward presence on the Korean peninsula or even Japan would become untenable. On the other hand, Sanders was not an effective legislator during his three terms in the Senate, and he may prove unable to implement his radical agenda — or to even win in a general election with so many moderates and independents who distrust socialism.
The next lane over is occupied by Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Warren has promised almost as much economic protectionism and socialism as Sanders, but her foreign policy advisors include more centrist experts who would likely try to return to Obama administration approaches to the extent their candidate’s big spending promises at home would allow.
The three center lanes are occupied by former South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar. The 38-year-old Buttigieg has articulated a pro-trade and pro-alliance vision and is staffed by a coterie of well-educated experts from his generation in the think tank, university and business worlds. Biden’s advisors include many of the most senior veterans of the Obama National Security Council and Departments of State and Defense. Having interacted with both sets of advisors, my own sense is that a Biden administration would return to the trajectory of Barack Obama — with an emphasis on democratic norms, alliances, trade and multilateralism, but perhaps not as hawkish on China as Buttigieg and his group of advisors who came to prominence at a time of strategic competition with Beijing.
Klobuchar has been farther down in the polls and has therefore not attracted as prominent a set of advisors as Biden, but her instincts on trade and defense are similar, and she is clearly a survivor with a future as Vice Presidential candidate if not the actual nomination.
Finally, there is Mike Bloomberg, an unlikely Democratic candidate given the anti-billionaire sentiments in the party, and yet one who could create his own lane if none of the other centrists is able to stop Sanders in the early primaries. Bloomberg has been calling the top minds from both political parties to his New York headquarters for years to study foreign policy problems, and would take an approach marked by pragmatism over ideology and results over partisanship if his unusual but well-funded path to the presidency actually works.
None of the candidates are debating Korea policy yet, but they will. My own belief is that a race between Trump and one of the moderate Democrats will be very close. No incumbent party has lost the presidency with the economic numbers Trump enjoys, but no incumbent party has won re-election with the consistently negative ratings Trump has earned in public opinion polls. So stay tuned. Korea policy may show up on the radar for a future column.