SSU Forum/ GraSPP Research Seminar
with Dr. Sheila Smith

Date: Thursday, February 14 2019, 10:30-12:30
Venue: Seminar Room, 3rd Floor, Ito International Research Center
the University of Tokyo
Subject: "The Fate of US Alliances in the Trump Era"
Speakers: Dr. Sheila Smith, Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations
Language: English
Hosted by: Security Studies Unit, Policy Alternatives Research Institute, the University of Tokyo
GraSPP Research Seminar, the University of Tokyo
Abstract: Two years into the presidency of Donald J. Trump, U.S. foreign policy has undergone significant changes. Reversals on international agreements have left allies unsure of the durability of U.S. commitments. The Trump administration has often made foreign policy on impulse, whether unexpectedly agreeing to a meeting with Kim Jong-un, or pulling troops out of Syria. In Asia and globally, U.S. allies are in a difficult position, and it is possible the U.S. alliance system will emerge from the Trump era transformed.

The Security Studies Unit of PARI, in cooperation with the Graduate School of Public Policy, was delighted to host Dr. Sheila Smith, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (Washington DC), who delivered a talk on the American system of alliances during the Trump administration, with particular focus on Asia.

Chair of the session was Kiichi Fujiwara, Professor of International Politics at the University of Tokyo and Director of PARI. He greeted the public and the guest, expressing his joy to see Dr. Smith once again at the University of Tokyo, after the memorable talk delivered in this same setting right after the 2016 US presidential elections. Professor Fujiwara reminded the audience of Dr. Smith’s exceptional work on Japan’s international politics, and Japan-US relations in particular, and of her ability to discuss foreign policy by looking at both external and internal political developments.

Dr. Smith thanked the host and the public, remembering her last visit at UTokyo. At that time, right after Trump’s elections, the US was stunned, and so was the rest of the world. Japan was possibly even more stunned than the US. What has changed since then? The US continues to be a much divided country, even more divided than in 2016.

The government as well is now divided, with the Democrats controlling the House of Representatives. A divided government, needless to say, makes foreign policy even more difficult. Dr. Smith started then to analyse the record of Mr. Trump’s initiatives in foreign policy. Trump immediately appeared, even in his electoral campaign, as a particularly interested in international trade: the US withdrew from TPP in the first 100 days of his presidency, as he promised to his electorate. He also entered in a conflict with WTO, neutralizing its arbitration capabilities. Trump also pressured Canada and Mexico, in order to achieve a revision of NAFTA, which he succeeded to obtain, even attacking their respective leaders on a personal level. More in general, Trump’s policy on trade has managed to achieve some important results, but the way in which such results have been obtained, apart from the clearly hyper-personalised, and historically unprecedented way in which Trump has been conducting his presidency, may lead to long term damage to the relations with key allies. South Korea, as well as Japan, have been under pressure in terms of trade relations.

Indeed, Japan has recently accepted to start trade talks even if these were certainly not the wish of the Japanese government. Despite the good Trump-Abe personal relation, it is unlikely that Japan will escape Trump’s maneuvers, as he aims at redesigning US trade relations with the rest of the world, including key allies. Trump has also started a full-scale trade war which China, whose outcome is difficult to predict. As it was clear since the electoral campaign, he has shunned multilateralism, to the point that most of the US foreign policy architecture now has been fragmented into bilateral relations.

According to Dr. Smith, there are three elements which the Japanese public should carefully watch. First is the relation with NATO. Second, the gap between Trump’s rhetoric and what he is and will be able to achieve in reality. Third, the impact of Trump’s policies on how the US is perceived, that is, how America’s image as a reliable partner and ally can be shaken or damaged for long time.

On the first point, this administration’s approach to NATO has been particularly problematic. Some long standing issues such as low defence spending by key European allies (especially France and Germany) have been transformed by Trump in points of contention. While the security guarantee provided by Art. 5 of the NATO Treaty was usually verbally reconfirmed by previous US presidents, this has not been the case with Trump, who has instead hinted to the idea that security guarantees will be increasingly tied to trade conditions and other political tradeoffs. In the case of NATO, this has been rather explicit. Such approach has caused frictions within the administration, probably causing the dismissal of the Secretary of State Tillerson and the Secretary of Defense Mattis. European allies are trying to react by spending more on defence, but there are also domestic political difficulties to that. In the case of Japan, the US has not traditionally advocated a particular level of military expenditures (while for NATO the target is at 2% of GDP), but Trump may still focus on that metric, as he is doing with the European allies.

On the second point, Trump’s highly personalised and idiosyncratic policy making means that he is in principle not interested in the position of the various departments. This has been reflected in his practice of one-to-one meetings with King Jong Un, his decision to withdraw from Syria, and various other initiatives. His personal relation with Vladimir Putin, which is currently under investigation, and the secrecy surrounding those meetings, makes it difficult for the allies to understand what is happening at the top level of the US government. Such behaviour however also creates obstacles for the implementation of Trump’s own goals.

On the third point, Dr. Smith illustrated several public opinion surveys showing that Trump’s foreign policy has tangibly tarnished US reputation, particularly among allies in Western Europe, and it will be probably difficult to mend them in the future.

In conclusion, Dr. Smith showed further public opinion data illustrating how the American public is now more in support of US active involvement in world politics than in the previous years, while the more isolationist positions are receding. 2019 will be most probably a very complex year for US foreign policy and for the Trump presidency, with many domestic and international challenges, including the 2020 electoral campaign, which already looms large over the White House.