'America First' Can't Mean America Alone
Heading out on a trip.
On his first official foreign trip, Secretary of Defense James Mattis is going to the continent that presents the White House with one of its most immediate and one of its most long-term challenges. North Korea is racing to develop a working nuclear-tipped ICBM, while China is growing as a regional hegemon and global rival.
Both issues will require close cooperation with the U.S.’s longstanding allies in Japan and South Korea, where Mattis will be visiting. President Donald Trump’s main response, however, has been to vaguely threaten China and promise to invest additional billions to expand the U.S. military. Neither is an adequate response.
No matter how much Trump tweets, China isn’t going to press sanctions that might fatally undermine the regime in Pyongyang and result in a unified, U.S.-allied Korea on its doorstep. Nor are Chinese leaders going to cave in to trade threats or negotiate over Taiwan. Meanwhile, it’ll take years to build all the new submarines and battleships Trump is promising. And in any case, while U.S. allies favor a stout American presence in the region, they have no appetite for military action.
The most effective way to strengthen the U.S. position in Asia is by doing exactly what Mattis is doing: cultivating and reassuring allies. It’s encouraging that he reportedly doesn’t plan to question the contributions that South Korea and Japan make to support U.S. troops in their countries, as Trump has done repeatedly. Collaboration among all three allies is key: Any effort to contain North Korea will be much more effective if they can coordinate their missile-defense networks and present a unified front to Pyongyang.
Mattis’s trip should be only the first of many. It will be critical for diplomats, Cabinet members and Trump himself to reassure Asian allies and rally them to a coherent policy. The U.S. will need to work harder to encourage greater military cooperation in the region. And Trump can (somewhat) mitigate his ill-considered decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership by pressing bilateral trade deals, in particular with Japan.
Trump claims to have the same priorities abroad as he does at home: to make the U.S. stronger and safer. But he won’t succeed -- especially not in Asia -- if “America First” means, as it once did, America alone.
To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at email@example.com.