Friday, November 11, 2016

Trump Did Not Reverse Himself on Korea

It is being widely reported in news outlets around the world that President-Elect Trump seems to have reversed himself on various topics.

One of the things that Trump seems to be backing away from is his pledge to go through with “a complete and total shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” The Independent reported that the pledge was quietly removed from Trump’s campaign website.

Another pledge that Trump is being reported to backtrack from is the campaign rhetoric he employed against South Korea. When President Park Geun-hye called Trump to congratulate him on his electoral victory, Trump reportedly assured Park of his commitment to the alliance - promising to maintain the existing security alliance and stating that the US would work with South Korea “until the end.”

The end, indeed.
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However, it would be a mistake for South Korean leaders to take this to mean that Trump is comfortable with maintaining the status quo.

For one thing, Trump is infamous for flip-flopping far more often than, well, flip flops. He has often denied that he had even said anything contrary to what he is saying now even if he had said it only moments ago and that it had all been caught on tape. He may be feeling magnanimous now. After all, he’s just been elected to the most powerful office in the world. The man is allowed to feel elated. But who is to say how he may feel in the next few days or weeks? For good or for ill, euphoria is ephemeral.

Throughout the campaign, Trump has acted like a 70-year-old man-child and there is little to no evidence that he will ever change regardless of his claim that he’s “gonna be so presidential that you people will be so bored.”

More importantly, however, Trump never once said that he was going to abandon the ROK-US alliance. That was not what he said. What he said was that he was “absolutely prepared” to tell every American ally, South Korea included, that they would be defending themselves unless they agreed to shoulder more of the cost of an American troop presence in their countries. After all, he thinks that the approximately US$900 million that South Korea pays for the stationing of American troops on Korean soil is “peanuts.”

Although he assured Park that he is committed to the alliance, at no point in that phone conversation did anyone mention the words military bases, cost sharing, renegotiation, or troop withdrawal. In other words, there is plenty of room for the Trump administration to seek to renegotiate (via severe arm twisting) to push through with his campaign pledge.

And there is a good chance that this is one of those pledges that he will see through. He may have flip-flopped on many things, but “free-riding allies” is a concept that he had been repeating for years.

The Farkus School of Diplomacy
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As for the comment that Trump made about South Korea possibly acquiring nuclear weapons, there are two things to consider. The first is what he said.

“At some point we have to say, you know what, we're better off if Japan protects itself against this maniac in North Korea. We're better off, frankly, if South Korea is going to start to protect itself. It (nuclear armament among US allies) is going to happen anyway. It's going to happen anyway. It's only a question of time. They're going to start having them or we have to get rid of them entirely.”

The important words here are “at some point,” “if,” and “we (the US) have to get rid of them (nuclear weapons) entirely.”

That leaves a lot of room for interpretation.

The second thing to consider is the last thing he said - that the US would have to get rid of nuclear weapons entirely. Simply put, that is wishful fantasy. Any South Korean who is jumping for joy at the prospect of South Korea being given the green light to acquire nuclear weapons might want to hold off the celebrations because, frankly, it is not going to happen. At least not anytime soon.

There are many possible reasons why Trump didn’t get into any of those details. The most obvious reasons are that the phone call was just one of many similar phone calls that he was having with leaders from all around the world who are all congratulating him on his electoral victory. There probably was not much time to get into details. Also, it was the first call that he was having with the other world leaders as the President Elect. Maybe it’s possible that there is a part of him that thinks that being tactful and diplomatic is important.

Or maybe it is because he is feeling magnanimous and saying nice things because other world leaders are saying nice things to him and that was all that he ever wanted. Or maybe he is just letting other world leaders let their guard down before he yanks everything from underneath them. Who knows?

Things can change dramatically in the coming days and weeks. This is a unique time when the sitting president and the incoming president have an opportunity to play good-cop-bad-cop with other world leaders (or their own wayward people) to get as much concessions as possible. And seeing how Obama has been the “good cop” (highly debatable) to America's allies during his tenure, Trump can be the “bad cop” and play the role with relish.

It is true that Trump is not the president until the moment he is sworn into office on January 20th. Until the moment he assumes office, he has no official political power. But he does have the ability to bluff, suggest, cajole, and threaten other world leaders. After all, Obama is on the way out and as the Obama administration is relegated to the history books, the rest of the world is going to have to learn to live with the Trump administration.

It is important for South Korean leaders to keep their guard up. Imagining that the Trump administration will keep the alliance and trade partnership unchanged would be a grave mistake.

Everything is supposedly deadly calm in the eye of the storm...
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