In weeks that have been saturated by a presidential farewell address, cabinet confirmation hearings, a press conference from the presidential-elect, and new revelations of possible scandal, there has been little time or bandwidth to analyze the new administration’s perspective on international affairs.
But amidst the media bonanza, a glaring flaw in the Trump foreign policy approach has begun to emerge. One statement by the president-elect and another by the secretary of State nominee suggest that the Trump administration may soon find itself in a serious credibility quandary in Asia.
On North Korea and the South China Sea — two of Asia’s most pressing security hotspots — the Trump leadership has begun to make promises that could be disastrous to keep, but also costly to abandon.
If the administration hopes to avert foreign policy crises and reputational damage, it must formulate its international commitments with an appreciation for the role of credibility.
The nuclear and missile threats from North Korea have been mounting steadily for the last several years.
In 2016, Pyonyang tested a veritable slew of ballistic missiles and two nuclear weapons. Just last week, Kim Jong Un threatened to test an ICBM — precisely the sort of long range missile that could allow North Korea to strike the United States with a nuclear weapon.
The president-elect quickly took to Twitter and proclaimed of the missile test: “It won’t happen!” The trouble is, North Korea probably will test a long-range missile or a nuclear weapon during Trump’s first few months in office.
North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won't happen!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 2, 2017
Indeed, as he appears to realize, the threat from North Korea may be the most urgent security challenge he will face as president. But now, if North Korea does test an ICBM and the United States takes no action, Trump’s broken Twitter promise will indicate to both Pyongyang and to U.S allies in the region that the president’s words are meaningless.
The alternative, however, is that Washington attempts to shoot down the missile test in a risky use of force that is unlikely to succeed.
The South China Sea is also a pressing national security challenge for Trump in Asia — and another area in which the administration has made early commitments with far-reaching consequences.
These waters have long been disputed by regional states, but in just the last several years China has become especially assertive, transforming reefs and rocks into floating military bases, which it is now heavily arming.
At his confirmation hearing, Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson argued for stronger U.S. intervention around China’s islands, stating that the United States should block China’s access to its island bases.
The trouble is, the United States has no legal or political justification for doing so, and choking off China’s access would probably require the use of serious economic sanctions or a blockade.
Those Rex Tillerson South China Sea comments in full... pic.twitter.com/KIW72w6pF0— Bill Hayton (@bill_hayton) January 13, 2017
The former would be costly to both countries and potentially very escalatory; the latter is an act of war. But if China continues to arm its islands and the United States fails to intervene, it will have proven that the likely secretary of State’s policy pronouncements are also empty, which will in turn damage Washington’s reputation in Asia.
Policymakers and political scientists alike have long agreed that public commitments in international affairs matter a great deal.
Credibility, or the incentive for a country to act as its leaders say it will, is vital if the United States hopes to deter challengers and to assure allies of its continued strength and leadership.
Credibility forms the basis of any international commitment, whether that is a threat or a promise. If leaders fail to act as they say they will when they have taken a stand on the issue, however, deterrence and assurance are weakened, and the United States’ reputation among friend and foe alike may be diminished.
Case in point: Since 2013, President Obama has repeatedly been taken to task for his failure to follow through on the “red line” he issued, and then failed to act upon when Assad used chemical weapons against the Syrian people.
Indeed, in his own confirmation hearing, Rex Tillerson chided the outgoing president for allowing red lines to “become green lights.” But with just days until the inauguration, Tillerson himself would be wise to exercise caution.
The president-elect and his advisors have not yet seen their international policy statements have tangible consequences on the global stage. Beginning on January 20, however, the Trump administration’s words become U.S. foreign policy.
In Asia and around the world, the president-elect and his team must make promises they intend to keep and couple words with deeds. A failure to do so will have no less a price than America’s standing on the global stage.
Dr. Mira Rapp-Hooper is a Senior Fellow in the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, an independent, bipartisan, nonprofit organization that develops strong, pragmatic, and principled national security and defense policies..
The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.