President-elect Donald Trump’s surprise victory places each of his foreign policy pronouncements under renewed scrutiny. His erratic campaign leaves many wondering where rhetoric will become reality. Foreign policy is no exception.
In Asia—the subject of the Obama Administration’s controversial “pivot” policy—the president-elect is already doing some pivoting of his own. South Korea was a specific target of Trump’s criticism during the campaign. America, he argued, has borne the cost and responsibility of protecting its allies for too long, and should no longer foot the bill for Seoul’s defense. Earlier this year, Trump rattled South Koreans by suggesting withdrawal of U.S. troops stationed there and bi-lateral U.S. talks with North Korea were both possibilities.
As president-elect, however, Trump has changed course. In a phone call with South Korean President Park Geun-hye just two days after the U.S. election, he said U.S. commitment to the South Korea alliance would continue if not grow in his administration.
A portion of presidential campaign rhetoric always dissolves on election night. Given Trump’s general penchant for extreme rhetoric, is he likely to walk back other campaign statements on international affairs? What does Trump’s South Korea reversal signal about the future development of his foreign policy?
Campaign reversals are nothing new, even reversals relating to South Korea. Trump’s turnaround repeats in short form a Democratic chapter in U.S.-South Korea relations. In The Two Koreas—a one-volume history of U.S.-South Korean relations following the Korean War—former Washington Post correspondent Don Oberdorfer recalls the slow death of President Jimmy Carter’s own troop withdrawal policy.
Carter pledged, early in his campaign, to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea. Troop withdrawals had occurred after the Korean War reached a stalemate in 1953. U.S. failure in Vietnam provided a motivation for Carter to want to reduce American troop presence in Asia, but the 38th Parallel remained the most volatile Cold War flashpoint after a divided Germany.
President Carter’s policy emerged as campaign desire to make an immediate mark on pre-existing policy. In Oberdorfer’s telling, Carter’s top aides were reluctant about the form and substance of his withdrawal policy from the start. Once on the record, however, Carter was driven to pursue the policy for its own sake, and after dividing his staff and straining bi-lateral relations, he ultimately settled for a small draw-down in U.S. personnel (roughly 3,000 overall) on the Korean Peninsula. Most tellingly, when Oberdorfer questioned Carter and several of his senior aides about the policy years later, each was unable to articulate why it was conceived and then pursued so doggedly.
“In his haste and lack of finesse, an inexperienced president had transformed a general impulse to reduce U.S. military forces in South Korea into a highly controversial policy with which he was personally, and negatively, identified. Many of the American diplomatic and military officials dealing with the issue were not opposed to substantial reductions if pursued in a well-planned fashion, but they were horrified by the peremptory and damaging way the issue was pursued by the Carter White House. By refusing to heed or even hear the objections until he finally was backed into a corner, Carter undermined his own position.”
This is merely an arcane, if interesting, history lesson but for the fact that the above paragraph describes many fears about President-elect Trump’s foreign policy. He is certainly an inexperienced president – having never held an elective office—and acting with a lack of finesse was a campaign trademark. To those fearing damage—direct and collateral—from Trump’s foreign policy impulses, his about-face on South Korea was a sign that he distinguishes between ephemeral campaign rhetoric—however blunt—and nuanced realities of policy.
Where this leaves Trump on other key security issues, however, is a question the foreign policy establishment is scrambling to answer. How will Trump balance his critical statements about America’s obligations to NATO with his seeming support for Putin’s Russia? Will he be as eager for wholesale change in the U.S.-led fight against ISIS as he suggested during the campaign? In short, where will Trump stick to his hardline rhetoric, and where will be open to change?
Try as they might, no one can see around the corner into a Trump presidency. The capacity for course correction in policy he has displayed may cause some to exhale. The Carter example, however, demonstrates how easily individual political ambitions (regardless of party) can damage U.S. alliance relationships.
Will the president-elect acknowledge this reality? Time will tell. As a candidate, Trump took notions of ‘plain speaking’ politics to extremes that offended large segments of the electorate. As president, America’s well being depends on his turning over a new leaf. We can only hope more ‘pivots’ are to come.