US President Donald Trump has five objectives for his trip to Asia. The first is to put his personal imprimatur on US engagement with Asia, a region of growing economic and strategic significance to the United States. Second, he seeks to rally support for his policy of maximum pressure on North Korea to force that country to abandon its nuclear program. Third, he will reassure allies and adversaries of continuing support for US alliances in Asia, a signal to Pyongyang that its threats have not changed thinking in Washington. Fourth, he will table his call for greater fairness in US trade relations with Asian partners and demand greater access to their markets. Finally, Trump will, with stops at the end of his tour, demonstrate support for regional institutions and multilateralism in Asia.
Even a casual observer of US foreign policy will see problems, in particular the gap between each of those objectives and the administration’s execution of foreign policy. Trump has demonstrated no special affinity for Asia nor addressed its growing role in US thinking. His policy of maximum pressure on North Korea appears to rest solely on coercion; he has said that there is no role for diplomacy in dealing with Pyongyang and his administration has shown no readiness to acknowledge, much less address, that government’s concerns. The president’s support for US alliances has been questioned — by none other than candidate Trump. Since taking office, senior government officials have reiterated standard assurances of support for those security partnership — most recently by Secretary of Defense James Mattis in South Korea just days before Trump’s visit — yet the president appears to be a begrudging supporter of US alliance commitments.
The demand for “fairer trade” is in reality a call for the redress of US trade imbalances. The US wants to export more to its trade partners, implying that there is no reason for the US to reciprocate liberalization measures. Finally, the president has been disdainful of multilateral institutions in general, preferring bilateral deals in which he can use his much-touted negotiating skills and maximize US leverage. Reports that Trump will cut his tour short by skipping the last stop— the East Asian Summit, a critical multilateral meeting — is evidence that he is no supporter of such efforts.
Those gaps are indicative of larger problems. The first, and most glaring, is the absence of any strategy to engage the region. That reflects the larger, fundamental problem of the Trump administration: a lack of strategic thinking in foreign policy and its policies. Trump has no experience in foreign policy and has never shown a willingness to think systematically about those issues. He prefers to trust his instincts and his self-proclaimed capacity to quickly understand — and solve — any problem he encounters. He relies on bumper-sticker-like statements that are devoid of meaning, such as “Make America Great Again.” He is mercurial and inconsistent, convinced that unpredictability is a virtue and relishing his role as disruptor-in-chief. He sees value in undercutting his top officials if it keeps negotiating partners and adversaries off-balance.
As a result, US policy appears incoherent and subject to the whims of a Twitter-wielding, TV-obsessed executive. Nor is there an attempt to reconcile the inconsistencies of its policies. In one breath, the president tries to rally support for pressure against North Korea and declares his support for US alliances; in the next he threatens to tear up agreements with those partners if they don’t fix trade outcomes he dislikes. His support for multilateralism is balanced against and outweighed by his declared and visible contempt for institutions and deals he inherited.
Beneath it all, is the belief, articulated in Trump’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly this year, that the naked pursuit of narrowly defined national interest is sufficient for the United States. Trump rejects the larger objectives that have guided US foreign policy since World War II, in particular the creation and maintenance of an institutionalized global order, while in the next breath calling for collective action in the pursuit of objectives he deems worthy. There is no leadership, just the assertion of US power and authority.
These larger problems are exacerbated by more mundane issues. The administration has yet to fill key posts on Asia. There is no political appointee serving as assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs. While Susan Thornton, the acting AS, is extremely capable and well respected throughout the region, she is undercut by the fact that she is only “acting” and it is well known that the White House has opposed her permanent appointment. The same situation prevails in the Pentagon: only at the end of October was, Randall Schriver, an excellent choice, nominated to be assistant secretary of defense for Asia. Career officials in both buildings are excellent, but the absence of appointees has resulted in understaffing and a sense that Asia is not a priority for this administration.
Confusion is magnified by individuals associated with the White House who offer direct lines of communication to the president, such as Jared and Ivanka Trump or Steve Bannon. They have their own interests, and there is no indication of coordination, consistency or coherence in their messaging and that of the administration more generally.
A final factor, one that is impossible to quantify but critical nevertheless, is the hostility Trump has toward his predecessor. Since the rebalance to Asia is the signature foreign policy initiative of the Obama administration, Trump would be expected to reject it. And as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson set out on his first trip to Asia in March, Thornton made that expectation real: “On the issue of pivot, rebalance, et cetera, that was a word that was used to describe the Asia policy in the last administration. ... this administration will have its own formulation and ... we haven’t seen in detail what the formulation will be or if there even will be a formulation”. Withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal — on Trump’s first day in office — is the most obvious sign of that contempt.
Since the rebalance was driven by a global reality — the rise of Asia— and the inexorable strategic logic it created — its rejection by Trump suggests a rejection of both reality and strategy. That seems to capture the president’s thinking.
Brad Glosserman, Senior Advisor to Pacific Forum CSIS and visiting professor at the Tama University Center for Rule Making Strategy.
 Straight From the US State Department: The 'Pivot' to Asia Is Over, The Diplomat, 14 March 2017 https://thediplomat.com/2017/03/straight-from-the-us-state-department-the-pivot-to-asia-is-over/