Trump’s ‘America first’ remains a mystery

Fred Hiatt
Editorial page editor, The Washington Post

The Yomiuri ShimbunFred Hiatt, The Washington Post’s editorial page editor, spoke with The Yomiuri Shimbun, on Dec. 23, 2016, about how the United States could change with incoming President Donald Trump. The following are excerpts from the interview.

The Yomiuri Shimbun: We’d like to ask you some questions on Trump’s foreign policy, especially on how it affects the world and, in Asia, U.S.-Japan relations. What does “America first” mean for the world, based on his claim and his cabinet picks?

Fred Hiatt: I think the only honest answer is we don’t know yet. “America first” has had different meanings throughout American history. Based on statements he made during the campaign, various interpretations are possible. It could just mean that, much as President [Barack] Obama said, “The United States should strengthen itself.” Obama talked about nation-building at home and the most important thing for U.S. leadership was to make sure the U.S. economy was strong. That could be one version of “America first.”

Or it could mean a very different attitude toward allies and alliances, which would ... bring a sharp departure from U.S. policy for the last 60 years, and I think we won’t know yet which will happen.

I think most American people support and understand [Obama’s approach], and maybe that’s more or less what Trump is talking about. Certainly during the campaign at times, he talked about NATO [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization] and the U.S.-Japan alliance in ways that could give rise to doubts. But we don’t know yet how he will govern.

Q: Trump’s defining characteristic is unpredictability. How will that affect foreign policy and relations with adversaries and allies?

A: As a strategy, unpredictability can have its uses. Sometimes it’s valuable for adversaries not to be sure how the United States will respond. But it also can be risky. There’s a very famous speech that [says] if allies are not sure whether they can count on the United States, then they’re likely to hedge by making agreements with other powers or making other deals in which they’re not counting on the United States in ways that could be destabilizing and counter to U.S. interests.

Q: In March, you interviewed Mr. Trump, and you pointed out that unpredictability might cause some risks and you cited former U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson. Could you share that argument with our readers?

A: In a way, the Acheson is an example of speaking without clearly thinking about the consequences. Acheson famously gave a speech [in January 1950] in which he said, “U.S. interests run up through the Japanese islands,” and the map he drew excluded Korea. Not long after, the North Koreans invaded South Korea.

Now, we don’t know — and it’s probably too much to say that the Korean War never would have started, but the fact is, the United States ended up going to war to defend South Korea, and if it had clearly stated that its deterrence policy included South Korea, it could have maybe — the Soviet Union and the Chinese and the North Koreans would have calculated differently.

I think you can make a similar argument about NATO today. If the United States is clear that Article 5 in NATO is sacrosanct and that any attack on one NATO country is an attack on all NATO countries, that will have a deterrent effect on Russia.

Q: Many Japanese people are worried about Trump’s remarks on the Senkakus — his ambiguity on the U.S. commitment to defend the Senkaku Islands when they are attacked.

A: President Obama was very clear about that; what he said remains U.S. policy. I think it’s also notable that President Trump has appointed a secretary of defense who has spent his life working with allies and alliances. So at this point, there’s no reason to think that the U.S.-Japan treaty is being interpreted differently. But going forward, there could be risks in not making clear that the United States is as strong as it’s always been.

Q: In the campaign period, Trump implied that he would withdraw U.S. forces in Japan if Japan doesn’t increase cost-sharing. So, what will change in the Trump administration regarding U.S.-Japan relations and Okinawa?

A: In general, I hope that once he becomes president, Trump will realize how much Japan is already contributing, and also how vital to U.S. interests it is that the United States has a presence in the Pacific region and in East Asia.

Every president since I’ve been covering this has complained that the allies aren’t doing enough, both in Europe and in Asia; burden-sharing is a perpetual topic of conversation, I would say with more justification these days in Europe than in Asia. Most European countries are not spending 2 percent of GDP [gross domestic product] on defense and it’s legitimate for the United States to say they should do their share.

At the same time, I think it’s important for the United States to say that alliances are not just financial contracts and that if the United States gives its word, it’s going to keep its word regardless of what happens separately in negotiations about burden-sharing.

Q: Trump tweeted on the topic of a nuclear stance, “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability.” In his campaign period, he said it’s OK if Japan and South Korea acquire nukes. How concerned are you about such remarks?

A: After he made the tweet, his spokesperson said, “Oh, he doesn’t really mean expand nuclear arsenal; he’s talking about non-proliferation.” Then, this morning, reportedly he said, “Well, if they want an arms race, let’s have an arms race.”

I think it’s one thing to tweet about F35s or the musical “Hamilton.” Nuclear policy is something more serious and a president and a president-elect should be very careful with every word they choose when it comes to mutually assured destruction and nuclear weapons.

The heaviest responsibility for a president is overseeing the nuclear arsenal and doing everything in his power as every previous president in the atomic age has done to avoid situations where they might be used. We have to hope that he will appreciate that responsibility.

Q: Trump claimed that he doesn’t care about the “One China” policy if China continues unfair trade. How do you see the future of U.S.-China relations?

A: I think President-elect Trump is right that in some ways, the relationship is unbalanced in an unfair way. If you look at our business, Chinese reporters are allowed to live in the United States, as many as Chinese media want to send, and any names or journalists they want to send get visas, whereas China is very restrictive of which and how many American journalists can be in China. The same is true on a larger scale with businesses, especially internet companies, which are hardly allowed to function, and only if they agree to various levels of censorship and technology-sharing, and other conditions that are not reciprocated by the West.

So the idea that the United States would say “we need a new deal” doesn’t strike me as crazy. I also think that Taiwan is a thriving democracy, and the idea that it is kept out of international discourse doesn’t make all that much sense. So what seem to be the basic impulses to reexamine the relationship seem sensible.

Once again though, I would say you have to do it carefully. There’s obviously a lot of history to the “One China” policy. There’s a risk that if the United States takes measures that China doesn’t like, China will respond against Taiwan rather than against the United States, and has the Trump team thought through what they would do in a case like that? It’s not clear to me, and again, it kind of speaks to the risks of doing foreign policy by tweet.

Q: Obama’s administration has thought of the Trans-Pacific Partnership as one of the central pillars of the Asia rebalance policy, but Trump announced that he would withdraw from it. How does that affect U.S.-Asia relations and commitment?

A: I think U.S. leadership is strongest when it is founded on values that other countries share or aspire to, including human rights, and economic freedom and open, fair trade. We criticize President Obama for not giving a high enough priority to some of those values in his relationship with China and elsewhere, and so far, Trump has seemed even less committed to them. He spoke during the campaign admiringly of dictators in a way that, I think, if he took [that] into the White House, would undercut U.S. leadership.

The TPP is a piece of that because it was an economic agreement based on the kind of open, liberal economy that Japan and the U.S. and Korea and Taiwan and Australia and other countries think is in the best interests of the citizens. It encouraged free unions in Vietnam, it discouraged state-owned enterprises getting an unfair advantage. Pulling out from that leaves the United States without a platform to stake its claim of leadership in Asia. I think it’s a big mistake to abandon it. And I think the Trump administration will have to come up with some alternative unless it wants to cede the playing field entirely to China.

This interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Washington Bureau Chief Satoshi Ogawa.Speech

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