Podcast music: Blindhead and Mick Lexington.
DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council. I'm also the director of the Asia Dialogues program at Carnegie Council in New York City.
Today I'm speaking with Ali Wyne. He is a non-resident fellow with the Atlantic Council. He is a security fellow with the Truman National Security Project, and he is also a member of our Carnegie New Leaders program.
Ali, great to speak with you today.
ALI WYNE: Thank you for having me on.
DEVIN STEWART: You coordinated an open letter critiquing then-candidate Donald Trump's vision for a future American foreign policy. This letter appeared in The American Interest magazine, and it was basically a critique of Trump's foreign policy vision. How did that letter come about, and what has been the reaction to that letter?
ALI WYNE: The original impetus for the letter was that at the Truman National Security Project they have an annual conference and they get together with their members and set the agenda for the coming year. This past summer at the conference we heard from many members of the Truman National Security Project who were advising Secretary Clinton's presidential campaign. I left the conference feeling sufficiently alarmed about the prospect of a Trump Administration and the prospect of a Trump Administration worldview that seemed to harken back to an almost interwar 1930's conception of U.S. foreign policy and I felt that it behooved me and that it behooved others to articulate our concerns.
I think the morning after the conference concluded I drafted an open letter. At first I was just going to see if I could publish it just as a single author, but I figured that it would have more resonance if I could expand the base of signatories, and so I circulated it initially to a few friends and colleagues, and they seemed enthusiastic about signing, and they encouraged me to circulate it further, which I did. I was gratified by the response. We were able to get, I think, in the ballpark of 200 signatures, I think actually well over 200 signatures, for this letter, and these were individuals from the think tank community, academics, scholars, former policymakers.
I think it had a good impact. I think we were able to articulate some concerns about then-candidate Trump's worldview. The regret, if I had one, about the letter in retrospect is that it may have—and actually some of the individuals who declined the letter contacted me and they said, "We're declining to sign the letter not because we disagree with the substance thereof, but we're concerned about the message that it might reinforce." And the message is that those individuals who expressed skepticism about candidate Trump and his foreign policy, "they're part of the 'blob,' they're part of the Establishment." If you look at a list of signatories to the letter, they are principally members of this much-derided blob. So it might reinforce the message that it is these Washington insiders and academics who reject then-candidate Trump's worldview, but Americans who are outside of that bubble, they support his vision. So that's my one regret with the letter in retrospect.
Nonetheless, I felt then a compulsion to articulate my concerns. On balance and in hindsight, I'm still glad that I did.
DEVIN STEWART: Can you elaborate on the concerns spelled out in the letter? It sounds like you and others were concerned that Trump's views were sort of a throwback and that they were not necessarily supporting American values. I know "values" was one of the themes. Can you elaborate a little bit on the concerns in that letter?
ALI WYNE: Sure. The thrust of the letter wasn't that we were blanket rejecting any and all of then-candidate Trump's propositions. In fact, I hastened to note early on in the letter that a recalibration of U.S. foreign policy was in order—I still believe that such a recalibration is in order—and I believed that many of then-candidate Trump's propositions and conclusions actually brought up some important points, whether about the need to exercise greater caution when contemplating military intervention abroad, particularly in the Middle East; the imperative of achieving a more equitable burden sharing when it comes to defense between the United States and its fellow North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member countries; the importance of engaging in nation building at home because economic vitality at home is a precursor for sustained U.S. leadership, and that, of course, is a bipartisan theme and one that President Obama made a point of in his foreign policy. So I began the letter by saying that a recalibration of U.S. foreign policy is in order, and to the extent that his worldview—to the extent that he had a worldview—to the extent that his assertions were compelling such a recalibration, that's fine.
The concern was that he didn't appear to be proposing so much a judicious recalibration of U.S. foreign policy as almost an entire rejection, a complete rejection, of the main tenets of the bipartisan foreign policy consensus that has prevailed for almost three-quarters of a century. So the concern of the letter was: Are we going from recalibration to total disbanding? When I looked at the frequent derogations of NATO, there were frequent derogations of longstanding alliances, the rejection of free trade agreements, the insistence on a transactional conception of geopolitics, a very zero-sum conception of geopolitics, and one that seemed to eschew multilateral diplomacy in favor of bilateral diplomacy.
So when I started putting together those different elements, it seemed to me that candidate Trump was proposing, as I said earlier, kind of a 1930s interwar conception of foreign policy that rejected core elements of globalization, that rejected core elements of the bipartisan consensus. So the thrust of the letter was: "Yes, let's recalibrate U.S. foreign policy, and let's interrogate some of the orthodoxies and shibboleths of the much-derided consensus of the blob, but let's do so in a judicious manner; let's do so in an incremental manner rather than sort of a wholesale rejection of the consensus." So that was the thrust of the letter.
DEVIN STEWART: For people who are not familiar with the blob, this is slang for the Establishment in Washington. Am I correct there?
ALI WYNE: Yes. I believe it is Ben Rhodes—I don't know if he coined the term "the blob"—the foreign policy figure from the Obama Administration, who is at least most associated with coining the term.
The blob is a capacious term, but as you said, I think it broadly is a reference to the foreign policy Establishment. The Establishment, as I understand it, comprises many of the think tanks—not all of them—in the D.C. community as well as beyond. It also includes, of course, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Hoover Institution. It is a broad swath of the think tank community; it's a broad segment of the academic community that supports this bipartisan foreign policy consensus; it includes much of the commentariat at preeminent newspapers and journals.
So again, it's a capacious term, but I think that broadly it refers to individuals and organizations that support generally the sustained U.S. engagement in world affairs, that support the notion that a modicum of stability in world order is predicated upon continuance of that leadership role. Again, within the blob—I don't want to portray the blog as monolithic—you'll find obviously very robust debates among individuals who belong to that kind of amorphous entity who disagree about how the United States should exercise leadership abroad, when it should intervene abroad, and what elements of our power are most crucial. So some individuals are inclined more heavily toward military power, some more toward geoeconomic power. I think the point is that those debates occur under the auspices of a broad agreement about the necessity of sustained U.S. engagement abroad.
DEVIN STEWART: Going back to your letter, now that we're a few months into the Trump Administration, let's take an assessment. What things have come to pass, and what things have not come to pass? How do you match up your letter's concerns with the reality of what has taken place?
ALI WYNE: I would say that unfortunately, I don't know that I would revise the letter substantially in light of what has transpired in recent months; I might tinker with it at the edges. For me, the principal concern with the administration foreign policy—well, there are a number of concerns with the administration's foreign policy, the first of which is uncertainty.
Then-candidate Trump and now President Trump has advocated the importance of strategic ambiguity, and he often has said that one of America's strategic liabilities up until now has been that we sort of telecast our intentions to the world so that not only allies know what our intentions are, but that adversaries and competitors as well are aware of what we intend to do. So he has a penchant for strategic ambiguity. The problem is that strategic ambiguity, for it to be successful, depends not only on the existence of the ambiguity itself, but it depends upon the skill and the nuance with which it is executed. So it's very much dependent upon the practitioner of strategic ambiguity.
What I worry about is that the way in which the administration has practiced strategic ambiguity thus far has betrayed not so much strategic finesse as it has a certain measure of being out of depth. For example, when the administration came to office it initially said—this is just one example—that the administration would only be beholden to the One-China policy contingent upon China making a series of concessions on a range of issues, whether it was trade policy, exerting greater pressure on North Korea and the like, and then he has a phone call with President Xi and there is a very swift about-face in which President Trump says, "Okay, we'll adhere to the One-China policy."
So Taiwan is upset; China was initially upset; yes, they were reassured by the administration's coming around to the One-China policy, but they still maintain the skepticism that why did the Trump Administration sort of come out swinging out of the gates by putting one of China's core interests at play? That's an example of ambiguity that reflects not so much finesse, but it reflects a certain lack of acquaintance—and I think a pretty evident lack of acquaintance—with core tenets of U.S. foreign policy.
Similarly with Russia. One of the administration's principal initiatives has been to restore relations with Russia. Again, on its face—if you look at Graham Allison, you look at Joe Nye, and many other individuals who have been very critical of the administration's foreign policy—many individuals argue, and I certainly concur, that a rapprochement of sorts with Russia is imperative given the number of shared strategic interests that we have.
But I think that the administration underestimated the extent to which Trump's seeming affinity with Putin and the extent to which Trump's desire for a reset—or I shouldn't say "reset" since that's associated with the Obama Administration, and Trump has been very critical of that—but I think that Trump and his colleagues underestimated the extent to which fundamental divergences in American and Russian strategic interests would prevent even a seeming affinity between the two leaders from bearing strategic fruit, and I think we've seen that in the administration's recalibration in recent weeks. Look at the ratcheting up of tensions between the United States and Russia in Syria; look at the longstanding—and I think increasing and now festering—disagreements between Russia and the United States over eastern Ukraine, over the Baltic, over NATO. Here again we're seeing an example of an administration that came into office with a certain worldview, but I think essentially reality is intruding.
The net of this is that both to allies and competitors alike there is tremendous uncertainty about the fundamental contours of the Trump Administration's foreign policy, so much uncertainty, in fact, that there are questions about whether there is actually a Trump doctrine. Is the Trump doctrine kind of a 1930s transactional conception of foreign policy? Is it ad hoc, reactive? Is it being improvised? Is it truly isolationism and America first? There is a lot of uncertainty.
What I think we're seeing in response to that uncertainty is that competitors are exploiting the vacuum that has been created by the perception of U.S. retrenchment and the seemingly unilateral abandonment of U.S. leadership in critical arenas such as free trade and climate change. Even longstanding U.S. allies in Europe and Asia—Asia in particular—are hedging against the possibility that the Trump Administration's worldview is not so much an aberration, but could potentially be a portent of a fundamental reorientation of U.S. foreign policy. So I worry that allies and competitors alike are responding to the uncertainty about the existence or lack thereof of a Trump doctrine to shape world order in ways that may not be favorable in the long term to U.S. national interests.
DEVIN STEWART: Looking at Asia, which is your area of specialty in terms of regions, I get that there is a lot of uncertainty, and maybe a doctrine doesn't exist—and maybe will never exist—but do you see any patterns in regard to U.S. foreign policy toward Asia that suggest any kind of a coherent approach?
ALI WYNE: It is difficult to discern for a number of reasons. One, because it is still early days yet. The administration clearly has confronted a steep learning curve when it comes to the world, but I think in particular the Asia-Pacific. A number of key administration posts with regard to the region haven't been filled, and we saw the consequences of that with the recent naval tragedy in which we don't have ambassadors in key countries; we don't have senior-level figures who have been appointed to key military agencies. So we see a lack of coordination. We see the lack of individuals who could really construct a coherent Asia strategy.
So much of the Asia strategy—to the extent that one exists—has been dependent upon the inclinations and proclivities of the president himself, Secretary of State Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Mattis. Of course, there is an ongoing, it seems, competition between these high-ranking administration officials and the president himself over the contours.
Having said that, there are a few—I don't know if I would say "patterns"—but a few elements that have emerged that seem salient: First of all is our relationship with China; that is front and center. The administration appears to have made the North Korean nuclear challenge the focal point of U.S.-China relations. The president has repeatedly insisted that China needs to use its economic leverage with North Korea more forcefully to induce changes in North Korean behavior, and has insisted that if China doesn't fix the issue that the United States will. Again, that is kind of an example of strategic ambiguity, because when the president says, "We will fix it if you don't," what does that concretely entail?
There was a very sobering and very illuminating cover story for the new issue of The Atlantic in which Mark Bowden takes a look at American policy options vis-à-vis North Korea. Bowden spoke with a number of very prominent national security officials who have been grappling with this issue for several decades, and he basically concludes that we have four options: He calls them "prevention, turning the screws, decapitation, and acceptance." He concludes—rightly—that all of them are bad.
What worries me about making North Korea the focal point of U.S.-China relations is: One, I think that it overestimates the amount of leverage that China actually has. It is true that China is North Korea's principal economic lifeline and diplomatic patron, but Pyongyang has proven manifestly willing to defy Beijing. It continues to defy Beijing with its ballistic missile tests and with its nuclear activities. So China clearly has not been able to turn the screws on Pyongyang and to do some fundamental change in behavior.
The other difficulty is that precisely because China, (1) doesn't have as much leverage as Washington might hope that it does; and (2) because China really is terrified by the prospect of pressure that might induce a collapse of the regime in North Korea, what China is likely to say in response to the Trump Administration is: "Okay, if you want us to exert greater pressure on North Korea, then we expect certain concessions on areas A, B, and C." So what ends up happening is we end up making a number of unilateral strategic concessions to China in return for not very much, because China, (1) can't do as much as we think it can; and (2) doesn't really want to do more than just abide by incremental increases in pressure.
So one emerging element of U.S. policy toward Asia is that we seem to have accorded primacy to the North Korean issue as it comes to our relationship with China. So that's number one.
Number two has been, again, a derogation of longstanding alliances with Japan and South Korea in particular. Japan and South Korea understandably are starting to hedge their bets. While Japan and South Korea have long maintained reservations about China's regional ambitions, they both, in response to the collapse of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and in response to the uncertainty of the administration's foreign policy in response to China's rapidly growing economic heft, out of necessity—not out of preference, but out of necessity—are starting to turn toward Beijing, and they are engaging with Chinese-led economic initiatives in the region. They are investing more in their own indigenous defense capabilities, and they are preparing for an Asia-Pacific in which the United States is no longer the preeminent power down the road.
So that is the second element; the derogation of longstanding alliances that has prompted Japan and South Korea in particular, but also smaller countries, Southeast Asian countries, smaller islands such as Micronesia, and Vanuatu to turn toward China.
The third element is also—and I wouldn't say that this element is unique to the Trump Administration; this has been a challenge for, I would say, administrations going back to the Bush 43 Administration—the Trump Administration, despite campaigning on a desire to extricate the United States from the Middle East, and despite warning that the United States had invested so much blood and treasure in the Middle East and that it needed to focus its strategic equities elsewhere, I think the administration, like its two predecessors, risks being sucked back into the strategic quicksand of the Middle East.
If you look at escalating tensions between the United States and Russia in Iran and Syria, if you look at the impending deployment of some 4,000 troops to Afghanistan, if you look at the more aggressive proposals on the table to counter the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria, if you look at the administration's embrace of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which is likely to further destabilize the Middle East, it seems that the United States both is contributing to conditions that would destabilize the Middle East further, but is also allowing itself to get dragged back into conflicts in the Middle East.
Again, the risk with that is that the more that we get preoccupied with the Middle East—or for that matter with developments in any other theater outside of the Asia-Pacific—the more the Asia-Pacific will evolve, particularly economically and institutionally, along Chinese-led lines. The late Lee Kuan Yew had a famous observation about this pattern. He said that, "American policymakers like to think of the Asia-Pacific as a movie, that when they extricate themselves and get distracted by other regions they can basically press 'pause' on the Asia-Pacific, and then once they've taken care of distractions elsewhere in the world they come back to the Asia-Pacific and they press 'play' again."
But Lee Kuan Yew said that's not the way the region works. He said: "If the United States is in the Asia-Pacific and is engaged, China and other countries are still competing and are still shaping the region. And if the United States decides to leave the region, evolution will continue apace."
So what we're seeing now is that it's not only that China is reshaping the region very much along its preferred terms—you look at the One Belt, One Road initiative; you look at Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank; you look at the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). This is not just a Chinese story, and I think that Evan Feigenbaum has done some excellent work on this in some of his recent essays. He makes the point that what we're seeing is the accelerating development of what he called the "Pan-Asian economic and institutional order." While Chinese growth is certainly an important element of that story, it's not just a Chinese story.
So you see India, Japan, Australia, Vietnam, and the Philippines who are all in military domains and economic domains setting up their own dialogues, their own defense mechanisms. You see the development of the ASEAN Defense Minister's Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus), so you see a number of fora—defense fora, economic fora—that are proliferating in the Asia-Pacific. Some of them include China; some of them don't.
But I think the conclusion of many countries in the region is that the United States is not reliable; it doesn't have the economic wherewithal or the political will to stay focused on the region. That's a message that is very concerning for our allies in the region. Unless we are able to overcome our strategic attention deficit disorder (ADD), for lack of a better phrase, and unless we are able to not only compete anew economically in the region, but also shape a constructive economic agenda in the region, I fear that that perception of American disengagement will only intensify.
This is a point that Ely Ratner made. He gave an interview to The Wall Street Journal a few days ago in which he said that, "China in particular is winning the perceptions game, and perceptions inform reality, which then inform perceptions." And the perception is that China is not only the resident strong power, but it is increasingly strong in relative terms; the United States is increasingly relatively weaker. And so long as that perception grows and reality doesn't change or intrude to change that perception, the balance of power between the United States and China will continue to shift in China's favor, and the acceleration of pan-Asianism will continue with or without U.S. engagement.
DEVIN STEWART: Ali, with that incredibly thorough description of the situation in the Asia-Pacific, American disengagement, pan-Asianism, and a shift in power toward China, what are the worst-case scenarios that you worry about given these facts on the ground?
ALI WYNE: There are a number of scenarios that are worrisome. I would say at the top of the list right now is North Korea. No surprise.
I would say that up until a few years ago the discussion about North Korea, at least from the American perspective, was: "Yes, North Korea is an increasingly worrisome power. It's a troublemaker. It poses an increasingly virulent and direct threat to its neighbors, particularly Seoul and Tokyo." And then there was also the concern which Professor Allison and others have long discussed, about the possibility of North Korea proliferating nuclear weapons or proliferating missile materials, so if you look at the Syrian reactor that appears to have been exported by North Korea that the Israelis destroyed in an airstrike in late 2007, that was kind of emblematic of American concerns. But there wasn't as much of a concern in the United States about a direct threat or the prospect of a direct North Korean threat to the American homeland.
I think now what we're seeing increasingly is that our leverage with North Korea—and not just our leverage, but I think China's leverage as well with North Korea—is shrinking. North Korea continues to test ballistic missiles and conduct nuclear tests at a frightening pace.
We're used to North Korean exaggerations and hyperbole, and there is an understandable tendency among nonproliferation observers and experts to dismiss Pyongyang's latest bluster about its "great achievements in the nuclear realm," but I think if you look at sober analysis—if you look at the analysis done by observers such as Jeffrey Lewis, David Albright, Mark Fitzpatrick, Sig Hecker, individuals who are intimately familiar with the program—there is now a very real concern that in the not-too-distant future North Korea will verifiably succeed in mating a nuclear warhead with an intercontinental ballistic missile. If and when North Korea eclipses that threshold, the conversation in the United States is going to take on a very different tenor, and the conversation will shift from North Korea as being just a regional menace in the Asia-Pacific to a direct menace to the United States.
As I mentioned earlier, the Trump Administration has repeatedly insisted to China that if China doesn't exert its prodigious economic leverage to induce a change in North Korea's nuclear behavior that the United States would act unilaterally. If the United States were to conduct a preventative strike or preemptive strike against North Korean nuclear facilities, there is a significant prospect of tremendous casualties on the Korean Peninsula.
It is likely that North Korea, if it were attacked by a preventative strike—one, it's very unlikely that any preventative strike would destroy all of North Korea's nuclear infrastructure because we have to imagine that there is a substantial swath of North Korean nuclear infrastructure that is covert, that is buried deeply underground, that hasn't been detected by intelligence, and so North Korea would likely bring that atomic infrastructure to the surface and deploy weapons against Seoul, would deploy weapons against Tokyo, would also endanger the lives of the 28,500 or so U.S. soldiers who are stationed in the demilitarized zone (DMZ); so there would be tremendous potential for loss of life, war on the Korean Peninsula, radiological fallout. So that would be a catastrophic scenario.
There is also a likelihood that a U.S. preventative strike or preemptive strike would trigger some kind of Chinese intervention. If you imagine an armed confrontation beginning with a preventative strike or preemptive strike that brings the United States and China into an armed confrontation, that can't end well.
There is no way that a confrontation between the world's two most powerful economies could end well. I think it would damage not only the Asia-Pacific economy; I think it would send reverberations throughout the world economy, and I think that it would also do severe if not irreparable damage to the hope or the conviction that the United States and China can find a way to forge this so-called "new model of great power relations." So I worry very much about some kind of scenario involving North Korea. That would be first, at the top of the list.
Then, of course, there are the other scenarios which don't seem as urgent right now but nonetheless shouldn't be discounted, and those are some contingency involving Taiwan. If Taiwan were to declare independence and China were to invade, to preempt a Taiwanese declaration of independence, how would the United States respond? If China and one of its neighbors were to get involved in an armed confrontation over one of the disputed islands in the South China Sea or the East China Sea, would the United States intervene militarily?
And then also just accident. You can never underestimate the risk of accident. This is one of the important lessons of the Cold War. Observers tend to wax a little too nostalgic for the "good old days" of great power stability or superpower stability in the Cold War, but the paradigm of mutual assured destruction (MAD) that prevailed between the United States and the Soviet Union was vulnerable to miscalculation and accidents.
As Eric Schlosser and other observers have documented in really harrowing detail, we came very close on numerous occasions—not just during the Cuban Missile Crisis—we came perilously close in 1983 and on several other occasions during the Cold War as a result of miscalculations and accidents to a nuclear exchange in which hundreds of millions could have perished. In fact, the prospect of such a nuclear exchange was considered so real—it is very disturbing actually if you go back to the annals of Cold War history and you look at the eerie composure with which U.S. and Soviet officials discussed the possibility that such an exchange could occur but that nonetheless U.S. and Soviet societies could rebuild.
The reason that I bring up that example is that while the United States and China are highly interdependent, particularly in the economic domain—and one hopes that that economic interdependence goes from strength to strength—if there is some kind of accidental naval confrontation between a United States vessel and a Chinese vessel while the United States, say, is conducting a freedom-of-navigation operation; or if a U.S. vessel or if a U.S. aircraft were to penetrate what China considers its sovereign airspace and China were to retaliate; or if China were to establish another Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) and provoke some kind of U.S. retaliation. So I think that there are a number of miscalculations or accidents that could emerge as a result of strategic dilemmas in the East China Sea and the South China Sea.
But I would say that of the scenarios that I mentioned, some kind of scenario involving North Korea would be foremost on my list.
DEVIN STEWART: Ali, thank you so much for your comments today. Before we go, do you have one piece of advice for the Trump Administration to mitigate some of these risks?
ALI WYNE: One is just a very basic point, which is that I think it is imperative for the administration to as quickly as it can fill the ranks of the State Department, the Defense Department, with individuals who should be responsible for conducting Asia-Pacific policy. Right now there is simply too much of a burden on the secretary of state and the secretary of defense. It is good that we have a veteran like Matt Pottinger, who is heading up Asia-Pacific policy at the National Security Council, but right now the administration's Asia-Pacific team is grossly understaffed and is in urgent need of individuals who have linguistic expertise, strategic expertise, military expertise, etc., to bring to bear. So that would be the first piece of advice; to staff up the administration as quickly and urgently as possible.
The second piece of advice, kind of harkening back to what we have been discussing throughout the conversation, is that it really is imperative to devise a coherent strategy toward the Asia-Pacific. And a strategy means: What are the United States' strategic objectives in the Asia-Pacific region; what is America's vision for continuing to develop what Secretary Ash Carter calls a "principal and inclusive security network" in the region; what is the president's vision for sustained U.S. engagement in the region; what are the elements of a U.S. new economic strategy that cannot only respond to China's new economic initiatives but that can also supplement China's new economic initiatives?
So I think it's very important—both for substantive reasons but also for symbolic and signaling purposes—to fashion a coherent, robust Asia-Pacific strategy that involves certainly military dimensions, but also involves diplomatic elements and, crucially, new economic elements so that both China and our longstanding allies in the region know that the United States is here to stay in the region as a longstanding Pacific power; that it intends to contribute to the ongoing Asia-Pacific miracle; and that it will continue to manage its cooperative and competitive dynamics with China so that the smaller countries in the region don't have to make that fateful choice between the United States and China, but can instead continue to develop their security ties with the United States while balancing and developing their economic ties with China.
So, beef up your staff on the Asia-Pacific and devise a coherent, robust Asia-Pacific strategy that promises sustained U.S. engagement in the region for decades to come.
DEVIN STEWART: Thank you so much, Ali. Ali Wyne is a non-resident fellow with the Atlantic Council and a member of Carnegie Council's Carnegie New Leaders program. Thanks again, Ali.
ALI WYNE: Thanks very much for having me.