Get ready, because President Trump heads to Asia on Friday! What could possibly go wrong?
Well, to be honest, a lot, and very quickly — especially if our president decides to go off script, like he loves to do. Asia's leaders are looking to Washington to rein in a rogue North Korea that can build a new nuclear weapon every six or seven weeks, and they don't want to see a lot of drama.
Now, being the good Republican I am, I have faith — but how can I not be at least a wee bit concerned?
While some of the rhetoric coming out of the White House has been unhelpful and sometimes downright inappropriate, Team Trump has just the right mix of national security pros to keep the president focused on what could very well be the biggest foreign trip of his presidency — if he heeds their wise counsel. This is clearly a make or break series of visits, with the president visiting South Korea, Japan, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines, and senior officials in the White House I have spoken to in the last few days get it. As one senior State Department official put it to me: "We plan to go over and impress — mark my words."
So what should the administration do during the visit to not only convey their hyper focus on North Korea but also to signal to nervous allies, such as South Korea and Japan, and potential foes, like China, that America is clearly in it for the long-term in Asia?
Here are a few key recommendations to ensure this presidential visit is one to remember — and not because Trump decides to challenge a North Korean soldier along the DMZ to an arm-wrestling match.
1. Get the communications strategy right: I know this is rather boring and tedious, but what we say, how we say it, and how consistently we say it matters. America has some key policy choices to make when it comes to North Korea that seem very much up in the air. For example, are we willing to talk to Kim or not? Are we willing to engage in diplomacy or not? How would we react if North Korea tries an atmospheric nuclear test in the South Pacific or engages in kinetic actions that kill people, as it has done it in the past?
As someone who studies North Korea for a living, I have a good idea about what the administration is trying to do when it comes to the so-called "hermit kingdom," but mixed messages in the form of interviews and statements need to end. The administration needs consistent messaging on what America's actual North Korea policy is. The stakes are just too high.
2. Don't get into another war of words with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un: Calling Kim "rocket man" or "little rocket man," as Trump has, is funny, but unhelpful. Veiled threats like saying "we will have no choice but to destroy North Korea" are even more unhelpful. It's time to cool down the rhetoric — for all our sakes.
3. Nominate a U.S. ambassador to South Korea: If we're going to enact any comprehensive and successful North Korea strategy, we need an ambassador to South Korea — now. Considering the stakes, the Trump administration has no excuse for not nominating one, and it needs to quickly fill the position. According to reports, Victor Cha, a former national security council official in the George W. Bush administration, was supposedly on the cusp of being nominated back in August. He's a perfect choice — so just announce it already.
4. Getting chummy with China is a mistake: President Trump is finding out fast that going all in on a personal relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping — or, as Trump claims some people refer to Xi, "the king of China" — is a big mistake. Beijing does not give a hoot about Trump's personal touch; for China, this is just business. And it wants to make sure things in northeast Asia, while tense now, become stable once again — with America doing what it always does with North Korea: accepting the status quo and moving on to bigger problems.
And China has an even bigger reason to hope for stability when it comes to North Korea. Beijing can't aspire to become the dominant power in the region, and indeed a global superpower, if Washington is fighting wars on the Korean peninsula or upping its missile defenses or arming Tokyo and Seoul to the teeth. Look for Xi to woo the Donald — but let's hope Trump does not fall for the trap.
Trump needs to tell Xi point blank that China needs to enforce all existing U.S. Security Council resolutions and help Washington get Pyongyang to the bargaining table. If not, well, all bets on trade, challenges in the South China Sea, or even Taiwan and beyond are off. That will get their attention.
5. Be as boring as possible: Quite simply, the president needs to convey a message that America can be a source of stability for Asia at a time when a nuclear war is a very real possibility. Trump needs to show he can be a boring, conventional American president. He needs to shake a lot of hands, do a lot of listening, lay a lot of wreaths, and make a lot of boring speeches. In fact, the less about this trip we hear back in D.C. the better. Heck, I would just be happy if he stayed off Twitter for a week. But, I have a feeling that might be asking too much.