Despite expectations, President Donald Trump did not go ballistic over this weekend’s North Korean missile launch. Instead, Trump and his national security team replayed the traditional U.S. response to such provocations—declaring solidarity with U.S. allies such as visiting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, working with other countries in the UN to warn Pyongyang to stop such actions, and pursuing stronger Asia-Pacific defenses.
In this and other international security areas, a combination of political, pragmatic, and bureaucratic factors has driven Trump back toward more conventional U.S. policies. For instance, Trump has recently reaffirmed the traditional U.S. policy based on the “One China” principle.
U.S. planners likely predicted the move since the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) habitually welcomes new South Korean and U.S. leaders with nuclear detonations, missile tests, and other aggressive acts.
After the U.S. presidential elections, North Korea ceased testing ballistic missiles. Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un had said in his New Year’s day message that his regime was preparing to test an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). Yet, he offered to suspend such tests if South Korea and the United States ceased their annual Foal Eagle and Key Resolve defense drills. Trump understands that this is a “bad deal” that would legitimize the DPRK as a de facto nuclear weapons state, and tweeted that, "North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won't happen!"
The DPRK apparently tested a land-based version of its submarine-launched solid-fueled ballistic missile. Solid-fuel ballistic missiles can be launched more rapidly and with less warning time than liquid-fueled systems, making them harder to destroy preemptively. However, this was not an ICBM, so it did not cross Trump’s Red Line.
Before assuming office, Trump made several comments about the North Korean threat—offering to meet with Kim to solve the issue personally, threatening the DPRK with destruction if it failed to curb its nuclear and missile program, and charging China with failing to compel Pyongyang to behave better.
Yet, since then Trump and his national security team have pursued a more conventional approach. Earlier this month, during his first foreign visit to Tokyo and Seoul as the new U.S. Defense Secretary, James Mattis warned that any DPRK nuclear test would be met with an “effective and overwhelming” U.S. response.
Trump’s meeting with Abe was also surprising in its conventionality, especially compared with the reports of his phone conversations with other world leaders. During the campaign, Trump used similar critical rhetoric against both Japan and China. He accused Tokyo of pursuing unfair trade policies, exploiting its control of U.S. debt as a weapon, and providing insufficient host nation support for U.S. troops. At times, Trump ruminated about Japan acquiring nuclear weapons in order to take lead responsibility for its own defense.
Yet, in his meetings with Abe this past weekend, Trump’s talking points were fairly typical of past U.S.-Japan leadership meetings. In the security domain, the official Joint Statement referred to the “unshakable” alliance as “the cornerstone of peace, prosperity, and freedom in the Asia-Pacific region” and reiterated an “unwavering…U.S. commitment to defend Japan through the full range of U.S. military capabilities, both nuclear and conventional,” even affirming that “the United States will strengthen its [military] presence in the region, and Japan will assume larger [security] roles and responsibilities in the alliance” based on the “expand[ed] defense cooperation as laid out in the 2015 U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines.”
In Tokyo, Mattis also used reassuring language similar to past U.S.-Japanese defense communiqués. Significantly, he reaffirmed that the United States would defend the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, which are also claimed by Beijing, in accordance with the Japan-U.S. Treaty of Mutual Security. He also recommitted to relocating U.S. troops from Okinawa, expressed appreciation for “Japan's stabilizing and strengthening efforts with Southeast Asian partners,” welcomed the 2015 revised defense guidelines and Japanese growing security responsibilities, and praised Japan’s growing defense budget and support for the U.S. military as “a model of cost sharing” and “burden sharing.”
Economic issues still divide Trump and Tokyo. Abe avoided expressing his irritation at Trump’s choice to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership (TPP), which Abe fervently supports, and strived to overcome Trump’s misgivings about Japan’s monetary and investment policies. The two leaders did agree to launch a “bilateral dialogue framework” on economic issues and that Japan could pursue the TPP as a regional trade initiative without the United States. Shortly before the meeting, however, Trump had recently tweeted attacks on Toyota’s investing in Mexico and the overvalued Yen. At the meeting, Trump seemed uninterested in Abe’s offer to help the United States build high-speed rail networks. Additionally, Japan has given no indication that it will pay more to host the 50,000 U.S. military personnel now on the island.
Equally problematic for the long run, Trump and Abe lack a shared vision of global priorities and how to achieve them. The joint statement issued during their meeting notably excluded certain subjects found in the comparable declarations by Abe and then President Obama: support for UN peacekeeping and Security Council reform (Japan provides substantial financial and human resources to the UN and wants a permanent Council seat), the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (which excludes Japanese possession of a nuclear deterrent and commits the United States to eventual nuclear disarmament), and support for global human rights, gender equality, international poverty alleviation, humanitarian and disaster assistance, global public health, and measures to address climate change. Those who want to promote Japanese-U.S. cooperation on “human security” to improve global governance, promote environmental protection, redress socioeconomic inequalities, and counter nontraditional security threats will likely be disappointed. For now, however, the Japanese-U.S. partnership seems solid.
A combination of political, pragmatic, and bureaucratic reasons has driven Trump’s foreign policies, at least regarding security, back toward traditional approaches. Trump is no longer seeking election, so he can soften stances adopted during the campaign. Having a better understanding of issues since assuming office, Trump can reconsider positions that he previously may not have fully thought through. Finally, his senior cabinet members have expressed traditional views on international security issues, and may have influenced Trump’s thinking on these matters.