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The Tempestuousness of U.S. Foreign Policy Blows in a New Order

The Tempestuousness of U.S. Foreign Policy Blows in a New Order

Illustration by Tim O’Brien for TIME

The U.S.’ current tempestuous, or stormy, reversals of several recent agreements bode quite ill for its role as the major stakeholder in the current international system. While an argument can be made that these moves are part of a high-risk, possible high-return negotiating strategy, it’s still an unproven strategy at best, with China as the primary opponent in many of the scenarios.


Recently, the U.S. has indicated a possible willingness to reschedule its historic summit meeting with the DPRK, originally slated for June 12th in Singapore, after abruptly cancelling it. Actions by both sides have been blamed for the cancellation, ranging from the DPRK’s “unfriendly” tone towards senior U.S. officials, to alleged Chinese influence on the DPRK’s negotiating posture, to the continued U.S.-ROK military exercises (Max Thunder), to the conflation (deliberate or otherwise) of the 2003 and 2011 “Libya models” and their applicability to the current DPRK situation.

With some haling the DPRK’s apparent willingness to still meet with the U.S. at a later date as a victory, it’s a Pyrrhic victory at best, at least in the short-term. This is because the U.S. cancellation of the summit plays into two narratives, one bad and the other much worse. The first situates the DPRK summit cancellation within the context of the U.S.’s previous withdrawals from agreements addressing longer-term issues, such as trade (TPP) and the environment (The Paris Agreement). The second places it in the arc of security issues which could have been addressed in the short-term, but for U.S. capriciousness and schizophrenia. The U.S. violation of the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) is the prime example in this line of argument.

Hot Air

The U.S.-DPRK summit had (has?) the potential to lead to a possible renewed Six-Party Talks format, which would address underlying Chinese security interests as well, as the Korean Peninsula is but one of several theaters of increasing great power competition between the U.S. and China currently. Related to this is the U.S. “disinvitation” to China to participate in the biennial RIMPAC exercises, after the original invitation was issued. While Chinese militarization of South China Sea islands was cited, the fact remains that more, not less mil-mil cooperation between the U.S. and China is sorely needed.

The U.S. is in a new (really old) game with China as its revisionist behavior has been cited in the U.S.’ latest National Security Strategy. As a consequence, the U.S. is a lot less hesitant to conflate trade issues with security ones as well. After tariffs, countertariffs, and various other trade actions were announced between the U.S. and China earlier in the year, seeming progress in trade relations was made recently, with ZTE being an example. However, inexplicably, the U.S. earlier this very week announced a list of Chinese items totalling $50 billion in U.S. imports to be subjected to 25% tariffs, with the list to be finalized by June 15th.

As has been noted elsewhere, U.S.-China trade is the primary ballast keeping U.S.-China security competition from truly spiralling out of control. Lastly, this apparent loss of face suffered by the ROK and China in negotiating with the U.S. to solve the DPRK and U.S.-China trade dispute issues, respectively, is not something that’s going to go unnoticed by the global community at large.


U.S. recalcitrance on trade issues was, in part, a factor in the recent summit meeting between China, Japan, and the ROK to resolve outstanding trade and economic issues. U.S. tariffs, threatened against its own allies (Japan and ROK), whom it’s looking toward to help contain an adversary (China) through its Indo-Pacific Strategy, whom, in turn, it’s ostensibly looking toward to help it contain yet another adversary (DPRK) is a strategy quite worthy of the most scathing, unrelenting derision. This doesn’t even factor in initial U.S. efforts to also recruit Russia (yet another sanctionee) to help with the DPRK, as well as recent U.S. tarifffs against the EU, Canada, and Mexico.

U.S. frenetic uncertainty is going to have further consequences in the long-term as it finds itself shut out of various diplomatic venues convened to address yet more pressing security issues. Partners and allies aren’t going to fall on their swords and subordinate their own respective national interests to U.S. “resolve” forever.

Whether it’s the Astana talks regarding the Syrian peace process, or the Minsk Protocols (I and II) set to resolve the Ukraine Crisis, U.S. participation is going to have to rise above arming this faction or another, brush off some suits, and get back in the diplomacy game, double-quick. Although it’s not currently sexy, after the Iraq War, and the 2008 Financial Crisis, the Ukraine Crisis is actually the third and final straw which broke the unipolar camel’s back. If the U.S. is going to consistently explain any kind of strategy at all at fora like this week’s IISS Shangri-La Dialogue, also in Singapore, it’s going to have to let the stormy winds die down for a bit.



Robert Matthew Shines

Robert Matthew Shines is President of Bright Group Consulting L.L.C., where he provides strategic advisory services regarding US-China relations. He has conducted numerous cross-border business policy and feasibility research projects and has been engaged in international geopolitical risk assessment and analysis for over 20 years. He has extensive experience in international business policies in the U.S. and emerging markets and has provided policy advice for numerous firms and institutions. He is a regular contributor to several foreign policy outlets, including the Foreign Policy Association. He received his MBA from the Thunderbird School of Global Management with a focus on U.S.-China relations.