Security and Foreign Policy

‘America First’ Leaves Trump With Limited Options in Asia

Trump's recent trip to Asia saw him take on a more moderate tone in stark contrast to his previous overtures on North Korea. Andy Laub argues that President Donald Trump is not left with many options and will ultimately have to appease the US' allies despite his 'America First' rhetoric. 


President Trump arrived in South Korea on Tuesday to a mixture of protests from supporters of President Moon Jae-In, who favors dialogue with North Korea. This is in stark contrast to more conservative individuals, who support President Trump’s more hawkish stance towards the North. Some protestors were seen holding signs saying the American President was more dangerous to South Korea than North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un

North Korea is front and center while the President’s trip comes at an important time for him to reassure America’s most important allies that the U.S still stands with them. Mr. Trump governs by an “America first” foreign policy, compared to former President Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia”, which was meant to reaffirm America’s alliances in the East. Mr. Trump’s heated rhetoric on North Korea has left allies nervous, referring to its Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un as “Rocket Man” and threatening to “totally destroy North Korea” in his United Nations General Assembly speech. It is no secret that President Trump and President Moon are not on the same page when it comes to North Korea diplomacy. President Moon’s track record of favoring dialogue with the North has been met with accusations of appeasement from the American President. Similarly, President Moon approved a controversial plan to send an $8 million dollar aid package to North Korea. Simultaneously, according to a recent Pew poll, confidence in the U.S President in both South Korea and Japan have dropped tremendously from 88% in South Korea to 17% and from roughly 70% in Japan to only 24%.

However, a very different Donald Trump arrived in Seoul on Tuesday, as he left the heated rhetoric at home and pushed for the North Koreans to return to the negotiating table to strike a deal. He posited, “everything will work out” and “we hope to God we never have to use [nuclear weapons].” Despite the backdrop of ‘America first’, it appears the President is still trying to gain his foreign policy footing.

President Trump’s trip started in Japan, which was fitting given his close personal relationship with Prime Minister Abe. Abe’s recent election win allowed him to take on a more hawkish stance on North Korea—a stance that aligns well with President Trump’s. President Trump is also making a strong showing by choosing to stand by America’s Japanese ally over demanding the return of Japanese abductees from North Korea that took place in the 1980’s. However, President Trump couldn’t help show his ‘America first’ instincts when he interrupted Prime Minister Abe at their press conference when talking about trade, asking why  Japanese cars could not be built in America.  Still, the foundations of the U.S-Japan relationship will continue to be strong.

By attending the APEC and ASEAN multilateral forums in Vietnam, President Trump is signaling a continued demonstrated interest in multilateralism and America’s longstanding commitment to the region. His visit to the Philippines, however, raises some red flags given President Rodrigo Duterte’s growing human rights violations as part of his “anti-drug campaign” resulting in thousands of deaths. By failing to call out the Philippines on their human rights record, President Trump is sending mixed signals on human rights by emphasizing it exclusively in Japan with regards to North Korea.

The problem with “America first” is it indicates a disinclination on the part of the United States to conduct diplomacy with its allies, especially in the most important pivotal region in the world: the Asia Pacific. In the past, President Trump has suggested that South Korea and Japan develop their own nuclear arsenals to counter the North Korea threat drawing criticism from foreign policy experts. President Trump will need to work to overcome that initial skepticism in his foreign policy and must address the United States’ diminishing role in the Asia-Pacific region. Whether or not this trip will produce tangible results regarding the U.S’ role in the Asia-Pacific, such as more Chinese cooperation on the North Korea diplomatic crisis and advancing key initiatives within the U.S-ROK-Japan alliance, will have to wait to be seen. So far in Japan and South Korea, President Trump has announced the selling of more military hardware, which is standard. However, it is not just going to be about what Trump says, but what he does and the outcomes that follow. As we have seen by his toned-down rhetoric and mixed reception among the native populations, Mr. Trump’s foreign policy is still struggling to find its way.

Andy Laub is a Masters student at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs, he also serves as the Membership Director for Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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