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Will Trump be a "Madman" in Asia?

Ex-U.S. State Department official discusses the new administration's foreign policy approach

January 20, 2017

A military parade in Pyongyang, North Korea. CREDIT: Uwe Brodrecht (CC)

DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City. Today I'm speaking with Daniel Markey. He is a senior research professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), and he is also a former U.S. State Department official focusing on South Asia from 2003 to 2007.

Dan, it is great to talk with you today.

DANIEL MARKEY: Happy to join you.

DEVIN STEWART: Dan, knowing what we know about the Trump administration—which is not a whole lot, but we have some pieces of the puzzle to look at—how do you see the emerging Trump administration foreign policy approach? Are you making sense of it? What can you tell us?

DANIEL MARKEY: Like a lot of people in Washington, I'm actually having an unusually difficult time making sense of the Trump team's policy message, in part because pieces of it seem to be at least not complementary and in some cases apparently contradictory.

I guess where a lot of it begins is with this notion of, in his words, "make America great again." So there is a lot of inward-facing policy, and some of that translates into the idea of shoring up America's borders and providing a sense of greater security, which would suggest a focus on counterterrorism and a harder edge there.

His comments about America's allies and the need for them to pay their fair share also raises some questions about traditional alliances.

The last big point would be simply that his views of relations with other big countries, like Russia and China, are—at least so far—somewhat out of the mainstream, especially Russia. He has already picked a couple of fights with China. These are warning signs, at least from my perspective.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you see certain personalities being more influential than others in the foreign policy team?

DANIEL MARKEY: Even that is difficult to say. Through the campaign, Mike Flynn, who is the new national security advisor, seemed to have then-candidate Trump's ear on a lot of foreign policy issues, particularly this question of countering terrorists—as they would say, "Islamic fundamentalists," "extremists," "terrorists," and so on. But it is not clear, now that cabinet positions are getting filled out, that Flynn will necessarily carry the same weight as someone like General Mattis, the new secretary of defense, or even somebody like Rex Tillerson over at State. I think when they are in the room and it is a cabinet-level meeting, some of these other characters may have simply more to say, more experience, and their positions may be taken more seriously even than Flynn's would. [Editor's note: This interview was recorded on January 20, before The Wall Street Journal reported that Gen. Flynn was under a counterintelligence investigation regarding communications with the Russian government.]

And then there are a lot of wild cards here, too. You've got the "kitchen cabinet" folks, Jared Kushner, Steve Bannon, and others. It is hard to tell what role they'll have on the foreign policy front.

DEVIN STEWART: If you look at the people who do seem to have Trump's ear on foreign policy, is there any kind of common worldview that they share, or is it all over the place?

DANIEL MARKEY: Honestly, it looks pretty all over the place to me. I am one who is reluctant to try to put too much coherence into interpreting something that may actually just be incoherent. Everything about the process—the vetting process for selecting national security officials, Trump's own seeming ignorance on a lot of quite significant foreign policy issues—all of that suggests that in fact it shouldn't be at all surprising that there is incoherence and inconsistency among his senior appointees, which came out in their confirmation hearings. So I would tend to stick with that.

But if you press and you say, "You know, you have to find a thread of consistency," it would probably come back to a very seemingly nationalistic, one might say "realist"—that is, power-centered—perspective on the world, one much less concerned about multilateralism, even about traditional alliances, and certainly one in which issues relating to human rights or promotion of democracy figure practically not at all.

DEVIN STEWART: Is there a moral value that will take the place of traditional liberalism, or do you think it is just going to be mostly transactional?

DANIEL MARKEY: To the extent that there will be at least a rhetorical flourish having to do with more morally oriented or ethically oriented issues, a nod toward a sense of patriotism would be the nicest possible way to put it, a sense that, "Now American foreign policy is there to advance U.S. interests, to help the people of the United States." And the sense that seeking stability and security on the global stage to advance those interests has value because it is the United States, in fact, that he is the president of can be seen as having a normative quality to it. But it is pretty far from some of the soaring rhetoric that we certainly heard in different ways from other American presidents over the years.

DEVIN STEWART: Looking at your specialty on U.S. foreign policy toward Asia, are there things that are coming together where we could expect certain policy gestures toward Asia—South Asia and East Asia—or are you still waiting to see what is going to happen?

DANIEL MARKEY: Coming back to this notion of traditional alliances, when you look at East Asia and you think about the relations between the United States and countries like Japan, where we've had a close relationship spanning many decades, or even South Korea, I think there are a number of big question marks. Alliances are never easy to manage, and Trump has shown, at least as a candidate, less appreciation for the value of those relationships often that goes beyond the dollars and cents in every passing year. It is only in recognition of the longer-term value of these relationships, as well as the extent to which U.S. effort has been put into these relationships going over decades, that you begin to take a wider view. So that is worrisome and I think something that we should follow closely.

But probably more important, so far at least, would be questions relating to China. I was in Beijing about a month ago, and there was tremendous concern among Chinese scholars as well as policymakers, policy-oriented analysts, about what Trump would mean for their relationship. A lot of his talk about trade with the Chinese, his sense that the Chinese are not playing by fair rules, is quite appealing to the American public, but it does not necessarily suggest a very clear policy toward China, exactly how he is going to remedy that.

More worrisome than that were some of the interactions over Taiwan, where clearly the Chinese were quite concerned over what that would mean, and where I think as Americans we need to recognize that certain things like Taiwan are taken incredibly seriously by Beijing, and picking a fight over those issues could relatively quickly spiral out of control into territory that the new Trump Administration won't be ready for.

Just beginning there, I'd say those are some top issues.

I guess the one other one would be North Korea. By a number of reports, there are greater concerns about what North Korea is doing in the way of developing its missile technologies in ways that could pose big decision points for the new Trump Administration earlier rather than later.

DEVIN STEWART: That is a lot to think about.

DANIEL MARKEY: It is.

DEVIN STEWART: Before we get to South Asia specifically, looking at Asia as a whole, what are the most dangerous events that could happen in the region that could spark a major foreign policy crisis for the Trump administration?

DANIEL MARKEY: If you had asked me that a year ago—and it wasn't necessarily the Trump administration—I don't think Taiwan would have been on the list. My impression was that the China-Taiwan situation was relatively constant, that neither side was itching to cause trouble. And, yet we've already seen, at least at a diplomatic level, kind of a spat brewing over Taiwan. That has always been, at least for decades now, an area always pointed to as one of the top places where you could get a direct United States-China conflict. Of course, the South China and East China Seas always seem to be one or two steps away from some potential escalation, so you cannot overlook those.

I already mentioned North Korea. As somebody who focuses on South Asia, the relationship between India and Pakistan is not as bad as it has been at other points in history, but it is not at all good. There is no particular desire either in New Delhi or Islamabad to pursue a more peaceful approach with each other. Both sides are irritated and frustrated. So it is conceivable that something could start to escalate there, and of course that is a potentially nuclear escalation.

Those would be some of the ones that I'd put near the top of my list.

DEVIN STEWART: That is certainly a lot. Would you say that Asia is going to produce the first crisis for the administration?

DANIEL MARKEY: Unfortunately, right now it doesn't have to be, unless you consider parts of the Middle East as Asia, but typically we try to separate those out. There is just as much chance that the administration is going to be quite focused on Syria, on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), on Iraq, on questions of how to make good on certain promises that candidate Trump made about "crushing ISIS" and solving those kinds of problems.

Then there are big looming questions, even just in Afghanistan, which has gotten almost no attention throughout most of the campaign cycle, about what the new U.S. military and every other part of its strategy will be there. There are lots of things that pull even in those directions. Even in Europe you've got, relating to Russia as well as to the problem of the flow of migrants out of North Africa and the Middle East, big troubles brewing there, and that is before you get into more of the political economy of it all with Brexit and so on.

So yes, there are tons of things that could go wrong in Asia, but it is hard to tell where the administration will be pulled first. In its own statements—as much as it is possible to discern a worldview—the issue that has come up more than Asia per se would be terrorism. If the administration has its choice, it would probably take action there sooner rather than later.

DEVIN STEWART: Looking at terrorism, the fight against ISIS, and Pakistan's cooperation with the United States, you've written that the United States could benefit under a Trump administration if Trump is seen as a "madman," like how President Nixon was described in terms of dealing with Vietnam. How would that work?

DANIEL MARKEY: This piece that you are referring to is my effort to grapple with a problem that we have been dealing with with Pakistan certainly since 9/11. The core of the problem is that Pakistan, while somewhat helpful at times, has not been nearly as helpful, and certainly not consistently helpful, in fighting terrorists on its own soil during that entire period. Of course, everybody is familiar with the reality that we found Osama bin Laden based inside of Pakistan, and he had been there for years.

But there is a broader problem here, which is that Pakistan does not necessarily see all of the militant extremist groups that are based on its soil as terrorists in the same way that we do. That has really got to change if there is any way to bring the United States and Pakistan into a long and effective partnership. But it has not changed.

So the question I wanted to ask was, "Well, suppose if you could come up with a way to much more effectively coerce or threaten Pakistan, could you begin to see them change gears?" The logic behind that is that right after 9/11 the president of Pakistan did shift gears significantly, did help us, at least temporarily, in going after top al-Qaeda leaders who were based inside Pakistan; there was a policy shift on their part. That was in part, I am convinced, because then-President Musharraf of Pakistan was quite scared of what the then-Bush administration might do if they didn't do what the United States asked. So if you get a Trump who is somehow able to be much more effective in his coercive threats, maybe Pakistan would shift gears and actually take the United States more seriously.

The problem, and what I tried to point out in the piece, is even if he played the madman—that is, even if he seemed like he was willing to do just about anything to get Pakistan to play by our rules—it would still be really difficult to push the Pakistanis into actual compliance on all of these issues. So I try to point out how the Pakistanis might behave, as well as how difficult that would be to counter, and how necessary it would be for the Trump administration—the Trump team—to be really unified, really capable, steadfast, and ruthless in its application of coercion. All of which, given what we've seen so far—the messiness of this new team, a lot of uncertainty, and a lot of indiscipline—it is hard to imagine that actually working. So I concluded the piece basically on a sour note of, "Be careful because a real madman could make things a lot worse with Pakistan." Ultimately that's where I come down.

I am actually more worried about the trouble that could ensue from an attempted coercive approach and also from a foreign policy that seems, again, undisciplined, not connected to a clear stance, not consistent. Other countries, including Pakistan, will see through that.

DEVIN STEWART: The implied threat would be what, specifically?

DANIEL MARKEY: Basically, part of the challenge would be: What kind of a threat would you need to have in order to push a big country like Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country, into changing its behavior—not using proxies inside of Afghanistan, not supporting any terrorists on its soil? You would probably want to not be too specific in some ways because the more specific you are the more they begin to do a cost-benefit analysis.

But you would want to guarantee that they would suffer a serious consequence that would include probably some military action, definitely sanctions and other economic efforts to bring their already not particularly fast-growing economy to a standstill, and you would want to be able to try to show that you would target individuals and groups inside of Pakistan directly who you think were doing the wrong thing. If you could put all those pieces together; plus advance the United States-India relationship, one that Pakistan is already quite nervous about; and perhaps suggest a greater resolve inside of Afghanistan, you might be able to tip the scales.

DEVIN STEWART: When you say that the madman approach could actually make things worse, I'm thinking about the many times that Donald Trump has mentioned a kind of pride in being unpredictable in international affairs as an asset to getting better deals. What is the exact risk that that type of approach carries in terms of being unpredictable and seen as a madman? How could things get worse?

DANIEL MARKEY: From my perspective, the biggest problem with being a madman, for truly being unpredictable in negotiations, is not so much with your adversaries; it is with your allies. The United States is lucky and has worked hard to build up alliance relationships around the world. It is one of the things that differentiates the United States from anybody else out there—we talk about a rising China; we talk about a troublesome Russia. No other country in the world has built up a network of both partnerships and friendships and good working relationships and true binding alliances as the United States has.

In an alliance a lot of it is founded on the notion of a commitment and a sense on both sides that they will live up to what they have promised one another. If you don't have that, it begins to break down. So that's where unpredictability is the greatest liability and where I really see Trump as being a problem.

When you start to talk about unpredictability in dealing with adversaries, then it is more of a mixed story. It is not entirely clear. Sometimes it might actually be useful to be able to bluff; it might be useful to get some adversary to think that you're going to do something that you might not actually do, but they have no way of knowing otherwise.

But even there, I think it is important to recognize—and unfortunately you can even see this in the life story of our new president—foreign policy and America's relationship in the world is a game that gets repeated again and again. Mistakes that are made have long-lasting consequences definitely spanning decades. People remember. People in other countries—including countries that I work on, like Pakistan and India—remember what they believe to have been missteps by the United States. It becomes a part of their collective understanding of history.

Trump has a very short memory, even apparently of his own actions in the business community. He has burned a lot of people. That doesn't seem to bother him at all; he just goes about his business.

Well, if the United States behaves that way, it will be that much harder to find goodwill anywhere in years to come or to find trust. Even that you can bluff your way through with adversaries will become more difficult over time. So the good credit of the United States is something that he can quickly squander, but it comes at a cost.

DEVIN STEWART: Absolutely.

I would like to end with a discussion on United States-India relations, two big democratic, populous, and now populist countries. Are Modi and Trump cut from the same cloth? There have been some comparisons of the two. What do you think of that? And also, do you see them as natural allies?

DANIEL MARKEY: That's a great question. It is one where I feel like sometimes the similarities between India and the United States that jump out on paper—as you put it, two big democracies; two popular, or at least reasonably popular, and definitely populist leaders, two outsiders.

For those less familiar with Prime Minister Modi, he had not spent any time really in New Delhi prior to becoming prime minister. He basically took over his party and edged out older, established politicians, and it is now the party of Modi, which it had not really been so much before. So there are a number of similarities on paper.

The challenge is that the United States and India are in such different places in terms of their levels of development, the political struggles that they face, what the needs of their peoples actually are, and some of the cleavages within society, in terms of within India communal differences, vastly different in terms of diversity that makes the United States look all very similar in comparison—many different languages, many different religions, and so on across India. And it is just that much vaster as a country. The political cultures are also quite different. I am reluctant to draw too much in the way of comparison between the two, but at least on paper there are some interesting similarities.

The second part of the question being is it a naturally positive relationship, it could well be. I do think that as politicians, as populists, as people who like to use Twitter, they will have things in common, and as people who are eager to focus on doing business and building up economic opportunities for their countries in a variety of creative ways, I think there will be a convergence of interests there. Both of them talk a lot about things like infrastructure, although India and the United States again are in totally different places on that issue. So yes, I think there are some natural policy and diplomatic convergences there, too.

One other area would be having to do with the fight against terrorism. India would very much like the United States to take an expansive view on the threat posed by Islamic terrorism because India faces what it considers to be Islamic terrorism as well, and the United States has not always lumped those threats in the same place as al-Qaeda or ISIS. India would like to have the United States be very clear that it is on the same side in that fight, even if there may be distinctions on precisely which groups they see as threatening.

So those are all policy convergences.

One big potential gap between them is that Modi would like to build up manufacturing in India, and he would like to create all kinds of new, more highly paying jobs in India, and Trump says he wants to do the same thing in the United States. So on questions of, for instance, hot items that India cares about—like getting more visas for talented Indians to come to the United States and work here and form joint ventures between India and the United States—that is going to run headlong into some of the rhetoric at least that Trump used during the campaign about shutting our borders, keeping jobs at home, and building up our manufacturing here. So there is at least some potential for a divergence on those issues.

DEVIN STEWART: Very interesting, Dan. It is going to get very complicated, whereas most administrations can start out with a fairly clear goal and then things get complicated. The world happens.

DANIEL MARKEY: They sure do.

DEVIN STEWART: Final question—and this has been a great conversation with you today—is for people listening to this podcast or reading the transcript, if we want to try to get a sense of understanding the Trump approach toward Asia going forward, what things should we be looking at specifically? I know there has been some speculation about a hole in the administration in terms of senior officials in the agencies, filling those positions, getting the new team onboard and up to speed; or is it more top-level diplomacy, or should we be looking at the various crises that might happen in the region itself? In the next few weeks or so, what would you advise people to look closely at?

DANIEL MARKEY: I would have to say, sitting here in the inside-the-beltway Washington world, most of us are probably more fixated on who is getting what job, who is going to own what portfolio. There is at least some hope that on a variety of issues the different departments—that is, the State Department, Defense Department, and so on—will own a great deal more of that policy than may even have been the case in the Obama administration. In short, that the White House may not drive quite as much of foreign policy, that may run a fairly lean operation, and leave a lot of the nuts and bolts, and in fact most of the operational aspects, to the cabinet-level officials who—when you talk about Tillerson or you talk about Mattis—are at least somewhat more familiar, and in Mattis's case a great deal more familiar, with the functioning of those departments.

So then it really matters who is working on these issues, who is beneath them, who is going to take charge, who is going to manage things. The White House probably simply doesn't have the familiarity, the experience, and maybe not even the instincts as to how to grapple with these challenges right out of the gate, much less manage how they all fit together in a more sophisticated or complicated way. So appointments matter a lot. The only really big caveat to that is that things could really go haywire before everybody gets into place, and then we are going to be watching what happens on the ground and just how it's managed.

The first few months of an administration are always a messy time. A lot of policy issues just get put on the backburner, and everybody in the bureaucracy tees them up and waits around until enough of the appointees are in place to actually make decisions and get things going, and that can take three to six to nine months, and in some rare cases even longer.

That is always true, but I think this one looks like it is going to take even longer. Even when it happens, it may be a less cohesive, more decentralized approach to policy than in the past, which, if you're sitting at the State Department, may be kind of a relief. You have more power and control to implement, more authority to do what you think is right, and less White House meddling than we've seen in the past.

We'll see how that plays out. But yes, appointees are probably the thing to look at.

DEVIN STEWART: That's a relatively hopeful note to end on. Dan, it has been great speaking with you.

Daniel Markey is a senior research professor at Johns Hopkins SAIS in Washington, D.C. Very great speaking with you today, Dan. Thank you.

DANIEL MARKEY: Great talking with you, too.

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