Grading the Game: An Interview with Dr. Kurt Campbell (Pt. 2)
October 3, 2019
Andrew Schwartz: Welcome to the Asia Chessboard, the podcast that examines geopolitical dynamics in Asia and takes an inside look at the making of grand strategy. I'm Andrew Schwartz at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Ben Rimland: In part two of Mike and Andrew's discussion with Kurt Campbell, the group turns the domestic implications of the Trump administration strategy in Asia. How does the Trump administration's aggressive trade policy affect American farmers? How do Trump administration trade policies fit into the larger discourses on free trade? Mike and Kurt also discuss the Trump administration's departure from long-held norms in Asia grand strategy. Is the focus on browbeating both allies and adversaries sustainable? They wrap up the discussion with a brief examination of President Trump's summit diplomacy with North Korea.
Dr. Mike Green: The Democratic candidates were asked, what country would you go to first to repair the damage that we've seen in relationships, and I don't recall anyone saying any Asian ally. Some candidates said China, a lot said NATO. Buttigieg said, "Depends on who Trump has pissed off the most right before that," which was a clever answer. What would your answer be? I mean, what would you do if we have a Democratic administration and you could have some influence on this to get us back in the game quickly to signal that right away?
Kurt Campbell: I would probably suggest going to something very different. I'd probably go to India, maybe Japan. I would make a swing through Asia. I think that would be the signal I would send. Secretary Clinton went to both Asia and Europe simultaneously, but I think a clear message that the real strategic focus is in Asia is important.
Kurt Campbell: I do want to say though, Mike, I think at the core of our strategy is an issue that I don't know how to get around. Andrew, Mike, and I have been like brothers, we have fought on issues tooth and nail for decades now, when in fact our politics are about identical. The one issue that probably both of us have a lot of concern about is trade. We're going to see a campaign this time in which both the president and the likely Democratic contender will be somewhat hostile to trade. What Asians are looking for more than anything else is a comprehensive approach on trade that is about putting forward a vision of our optimistic engagement in the region-
Dr. Mike Green: And one that they can rely on. One that's consistent.
Kurt Campbell: The fact that we do not have a trade strategy, it's hard to have an overall strategic approach without a trade strategy. It really is.
Dr. Mike Green: Yeah. I think that's clear to the strategists. It's clear to soybean farmers in Ohio.
Andrew Schwartz: Are you saying that President Trump doesn't have a trade strategy or that his trade strategy is not working?
Kurt Campbell: Look, his trade strategy is based on an understanding of economics, that if an undergraduate submitted the idea of addressing bilateral trade balances as a means to fix your position in Asia, you would be flunked out of the class. All the economists and others around the president know it, but can't confront him on it. So the fact that he's trying to handle these issues through this narrow calculus of sort of the bilateral trade balance is problematic.
Kurt Campbell: I also think that trying to essentially negotiate one-off bilateral trade agreements is not going to be successful in a dynamic, evolving Asia and we are ceding that territory fundamentally to China with a very different vision, more generally.
Dr. Mike Green: Part of our leverage in these negotiations to begin with, is that we bring a multilateral rulemaking framework. That's why Japan agreed open ag. That's why Vietnam agreed in TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership to limit state-owned enterprises. I mean, they agreed to do that because they wanted the influence that comes from an American-led multilateral agreement that shapes rules in ways that force China to play fair. When you go into these bilateral agreements, that is one of the most important pieces of leverage you give up, which is why it's, and I think I'm with Kurt on this one. It's hard to see actually how the administration succeeds on bilateral trade agreements, given how they have basically emptied their own quiver of the best arrows they had.
Kurt Campbell: Not only that, but no country is going to step forward in this circumstance to say, "Count me in. I want to be in a bilateral trade." I mean the two or three that have been mentioned, one is the United States in Japan. There is no better person to explain why that is fraught with risk than Mike Green.
Kurt Campbell: The other that has been talked about a little bit is Vietnam. The Vietnamese are incredibly wary of getting into a negotiation with President Trump, when every week he's tweeting out the most egregious offender of trade rules is Vietnam. So it's just, it's the manner in which we've gone about it. It's a sense of not really understanding how Asian functions, putting leaders in a situation where they can lose face on a moment's notice. Incredibly difficult.
Andrew Schwartz: And I think what I'm hearing both of you saying is that, overall, our trade policy is going to be based on some political calculus back here for 2020, and that political calculus is going to be something very simplistic, because we have an electorate that doesn't fundamentally understand trade, and a president that's going to be playing to a base of 40% that is, "You're either with us or against us. China bad, U.S. good." Democrats are all over the place when it comes to trade, there's no coherent message. So what has to happen here if you're a Democrat and/or if you're an advisor to the president? I mean Bob Lighthizer is no slouch. I mean this is a serious person. He's got to try to advise the president. What do you say to him?
Kurt Campbell: Look, Lighthizer’s general approach, I think he's a capable person. But remember, his formative period in power was before the WTO, was before multilateral trade. So I think his general approach, I would argue is not as effective in the current set of circumstances. I'm not as interested in steel and aluminum as I am in setting the framework for IT and areas in which the United States and its firms can be dominant more generally.
Andrew Schwartz: Because we're in the ideas business. We're not in the steel business.
Kurt Campbell: Yes, but I think the larger problem, Andrew, is something, I don't think it's just… I'm in strategy meetings, domestic strategy meetings where I hear the same thing, where people will say, "Look, we've got to explain trade more effectively to the American public and that the American people don't understand trade." Unfortunately, generally speaking, the American public has made up their mind on trade. Many of the groups that we seek to appeal to believe that trade, more than just economic trends and development and technology, have changed the fabric of their lives in negative ways.
Kurt Campbell: If you look at countries that have been more effective with respect to trading, they've put huge amounts of money into retraining and to issues that most in the United States, particularly on the right, would say that, "This is the state functioning in areas that it should not." I think it's going to be hard to rebuild the consensus on trade. And I think if you look at beyond race, the issue that the president has been able to rally people behind quite effectively is this sense that we are being taken advantage of.
Dr. Mike Green: I'm a little less pessimistic, but maybe that's because I was brought up Unitarian, and we always believe things are going to turn out okay in the end. But look, the polls, Chicago Council on Global Affairs and other polls, show higher broad public support for global trade than we've seen in a decade or more.
Dr. Mike Green: Right now, the president's tariff policy is really putting farmers in important states like Ohio and Michigan and Pennsylvania right on the edge. I personally thought there was no way he was going to increase tariffs on China at the G20 when they met Xi Jinping, because he can't afford to lose those votes. They're with him now, but he can't go any further.
Andrew Schwartz: They're with him, but they've had drought, they've had several years of flat growth.
Dr. Mike Green: That's right, and they're getting clobbered now by retaliatory tariffs against the U S for what, especially China, what Trump put on.
Andrew Schwartz: Right, they're worried-
Dr. Mike Green: And lack of access to the Japanese market, because we pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Andrew Schwartz: Correct, and if you ask any of them, none of them want a handout.
Dr. Mike Green: I think it is possible to run on trade successfully in this country. Rob Portman did it in Ohio, ran as a free trader in Ohio and won as a Senator. But the politics are very broken.
Andrew Schwartz: [Sherrod] Brown would be good at it in Ohio, too, but he's not running for president.
Dr. Mike Green: Well, you could make the case for trade. You'd have to do it differently. I think Kurt's right about that. You can't do it the old way. I think it's doable. Lighthizer’s focus, I think, is pulling production chains, supply chains out of China, and he's succeeding. You talk to multinational executives in Asia, and they're pulling about a third of their supply chains out of China for the U S market, because they think the tariffs are not going away. So in a way, Bob Lighthizer has succeeded in his immediate goal, which is getting supply chains out of China. But two-thirds of supply chains for Korean, Japanese, other multinationals are staying in China, because they need that market.
Dr. Mike Green: So I think there's another chapter after Bob Lighthizer, and there is an opportunity to build the case for trade. But the politics are broken, because Democrats need votes that don't trust trade, and it won't happen in this cycle necessarily. But I think there's opportunity for leadership on this one.
Kurt Campbell: Yeah, look-
Dr. Mike Green: I'm not writing off trade politics-
Kurt Campbell: I'm not writing it off either, but I would simply say that, yes, you can find examples, particularly in farming and ranching states, that are pro-trade. What that's really about are exporting American grains, ranch products to Asia, right?
Kurt Campbell: But if you look more carefully beneath that in states and areas in which have been deeply involved in manufacturing, harder to find those case studies of people saying, "Boy, trade is great. This is the right thing." Now you could be more hopeful and look at areas in the West that really have been about the surge in technology, cloud computing, certain things and see support there for integration trade more generally. But I think at the core what we are facing is that if you look at sort of the industrialized states in the Midwest and Ohio, in Michigan, these states are deeply ambivalent to negative on trade, and that transcends politics.
Kurt Campbell: What's fascinating, I agree with Mike around the-
Dr. Mike Green: Chicago Council? Yeah.
Kurt Campbell: ... Chicago Council polling, but I find that there are things that are more interesting. What's happened is there's been a slight increase in support among Democrats for trade. Slight, but it's still not a majority.
Dr. Mike Green: Mostly because they're younger,-
Kurt Campbell: Younger.
Dr. Mike Green: ... more global.
Kurt Campbell: But a complete collapse in support in the Republican party, which we have always counted on to be the bulwark of support for trade. That has been led dramatically by President Trump. When Mike talks about a new leader, I worry sometimes. Let's imagine that there is an election, in terms of there's a new leader. I think we're going to be surprised that elements of Trumpism are going to be defining. I think he is going to be one of the most influential leaders in our history in ways that we can't really anticipate until after.
Andrew Schwartz: Well, and even if he loses, it doesn't feel like he's going away. I mean he could easily have a media company, and he still has his Twitter feed. He's not going to be a shrinking violet himself.
Kurt Campbell: Yeah, I agree with that. But I also think he has a, and again this is an issue that Mike and I sometimes struggle over. I think he is fundamentally reshaped the Republican Party, and there is no going back. So the Republican party of the past that was about purpose, human rights, morality, pro-trade, pro-alliance,-
Andrew Schwartz: Strong defense.
Kurt Campbell: ... the party that I admired, strong defense. The only element of that that is relevant is strong defense, but it is a threatening defensive strategy. It's almost like, "Don't screw with us, or we'll just hammer you." It's not a purposeful, "Our armed forces are there as partners to support peace and stability," but more like, "We're going to whack you, if you don't do what we want."
Andrew Schwartz: Are we leading anywhere in the world right now? Along the same lines of what you were talking about, whether Trump's in our out, do you see us leading going forward?
Kurt Campbell: It's difficult. It's very important, Andrew, not to look at foreign policy as a popularity contest. At the outset, President Obama was incredibly popular, and he has broad support in a number of key countries even now. But there were some concerns about American retrenchment, more generally. If you look at most of the public opinion polling in many of the countries that matter to me in NATO, in Asia, there are alarming trends.
Kurt Campbell: But at the same time, it is also the case, and this is undeniable in certain trade situations and other places, President Trump has managed to get countries to put better offers on the table by being difficult and demanding, right? So I think the undeniable message and lesson of that is to be tougher. I think you're going to find American leaders going forward tougher generally on Asian commercial partners, allies, and potential competitors as well across the board. I think we're going to see that it's going to be coarser, more difficult, and challenging.
Dr. Mike Green: There's tough, and then there's smart tough. If we're smart tough, it's not going to be a problem. I mean, the one thing we do have going for us in spite ourselves in Asia right now, is there is a definite hunger for American leadership, not American bossiness, but American presence, American commitment. So far, I don't see Japan or Australia or Korea giving up on us. For the smaller ASEAN states, they're hedging more. But it seems to me like we have some time to re-establish that confidence and that commitment. What's your sense of that? How much time do you think we have?
Kurt Campbell: I hope Mike's right. Again, I don't want to be pessimistic. I'm a hopeful person. I hope Mike's right. My worry is that let's imagine a situation that there's a new leader in 2020, that there's a new American leader. I think there will be a sense among the advisors to that president that he or she will be greeted with a degree of gratitude and thankfulness globally. That is not going to happen. In fact, the first year or two is going to be a lot of lecturing and scolding and, "You guys were idiots, and it was hard to work with you. We've made our own arrangements." It's going to require a kind of thick-skinned, careful, don't take it personally approach on the part of American leadership. That I don't think, I think is in relative-
Andrew Schwartz: Can our allies really afford to talk to us that way, though?
Kurt Campbell: Oh, yes. I think they can. I think they can if they felt that we were reasonable, like we used to be.
Andrew Schwartz: I got it. Yeah.
Kurt Campbell: You can't talk to Trump like that, because he could, at a moment's notice-
Andrew Schwartz: He'll whack you.
Kurt Campbell: Well, he'd whack you, or just withdraw the British, don't talk to the British ambassador.
Andrew Schwartz: Walk away.
Kurt Campbell: He will do things that are so unusual, and it's been our predictability that has been kind of reassuring generally. If we return to that, I think many countries will give us a piece of their mind. I mean that's just a theory.
Dr. Mike Green: No, I think, look, one thing Kurt and I very much agree on, and in transitions over the last 15 years have tried to do something about, is the fallacy that the new guy or the new woman, the new president, is going to instantly be successful, because the other one, the previous one was unpopular. I think every president that we have worked for to some extent has made that mistake of believing their own campaign rhetoric and coming in thinking, "Well, I'm new. And so, everyone loves the new."
Andrew Schwartz: Yeah, but you still got to answer for the old.
Dr. Mike Green: But you still got to answer for the old. Well, it's even more than that. You've got to continue what the old previous leader did that was successful. So I remember Kurt got me in to a dinner-
Andrew Schwartz: Especially in your field, because your field is…
Dr. Mike Green: Well, especially in Asia. Continuity matters. So Kurt got me into a, I assume it was you Kurt, to a dinner with Secretary Clinton before her first trip to Asia in March, 2009. I had worked as McCain's Asia adviser, so I wasn't sure why I was there. I assumed it was Kurt. I hoped it was Kurt, because if it wasn't Kurt, I was assuming that I was there to be eaten. We will, you know, eat the Republican guy.
Kurt Campbell: I remember this. You told me about this. You were nervous.
Dr. Mike Green: Well, Secretary Clinton said she disagreed with President Bush on the Middle East. But on Asia, she thinks the most important parts he got right. And that's why I was there, and that was really important. Some of the worst mistakes in the Bush administration, and I would argue in the Obama administration, were when people threw out what the previous guys did. Anything but Clinton, anything but Bush. It would be a mistake, I think, for the next president, if it's a Democrat, to just assume everything Trump did was wrong.
Dr. Mike Green: My guess is that if you have a new president, a lot of our allies are going to be really relieved. But I'll tell you what the Japanese and Australians and Koreans or Indians will worry about, they'll worry about the new president not being tough enough on China,-
Andrew Schwartz: Yeah, that's exactly right.
Dr. Mike Green: ... and not being supportive enough of defense. They're going to want more trade, they're going to want more multilateralism, they're going to want better diplomacy. But the next president is going to, if it's a Democrat, is going to have to be careful not just to assume we're going from black and white to color, like the Wizard of Oz.
Kurt Campbell: Yeah, and Andrew, I also want to say that there are elements of the Trump approach that are important and should be taken into account. And I will tell you, on many occasions, I've watched his deeply personal engagement with Prime Minister Abe, and I've been admiring of that and wishing we had more of that on our side. We were always trying to orchestrate those kinds of moments. But a lot of our leaders have other things, and they're busy, and it's hard to find that chemistry. Mike had it when he worked, he had it with Koizumi and Bush, and then others. I think President Obama had it a little bit with President Lee in South Korea, a little bit, a couple other countries in Southeast Asia.
Kurt Campbell: The president has showered attention and affection, in his own Trumpian way, on Abe. That's a big deal. That changes what the expectations are. We're not going to be able to say, "Look, here's a one-hour lunch, one-hour bilateral," call it a day. That's not the way it's going to be. That for me, has raised the bar, and I'm grateful for it.
Dr. Mike Green: Yeah, and he got a golden golf club in return.
Kurt Campbell: Yeah, that's right.
Dr. Mike Green: So I mean, it worked out.
Kurt Campbell: But I will say, this whole issue of ... I wrote a book with our mutual friend Jim Steinberg called Difficult Transitions, which are transitions, like they're incredibly difficult periods. And if you look at a succession of them, there's almost always things that you can predict. Much of it has to do with seeking to upend what the previous administration has done, A, or trying to implement a good piece of campaign rhetoric, like close Guantanamo or demonize butchers of Beijing without recognizing there's a difference between governing and campaigning.
Andrew Schwartz: Kurt, I got to ask you before we go, because we haven't touched on this yet, but North Korea. President just set foot in North Korea. What do you both think of how this president has handled North Korea and his relationship with the North Korean leader?
Kurt Campbell: Well, on the one hand, I'm grateful that we're not worried about missiles and nuclear tests. I'm, in some ways, quite impressed that the president has tried to engage directly the leadership. He is able to operate without fear of being attacked from the right, which has always been the concern in both Democratic and Republican administrations. So for us, if we were attacked by the right or in the Bush administration being attacked by the right, but he has basically co-opted those people. So nothing more visual than sending Mr. Bolton to Mongolia, more generally.
Kurt Campbell: So I'm not as alarmed by this. I don't really like the language about love and stuff, but I don't think it's completely crazy. I think it is unlikely to yield the results that he talks about. I don't think they're going to give up nuclear weapons. I think they've made that strategic calculation. But if we can hold North Korea from doing a lot of crazy stuff, then it's not a terrible gambit.
Andrew Schwartz: I mean, my 13-year-old the other day said to Germany's former defense minister, we were in Germany, we were with my friend Karl -Theodor zu Guttenberg, said, "North Korea is never going to give up their nuclear weapons. It's their get out of jail free card." I mean, they're just not. So we have to operate under that principle.
Dr. Mike Green: Well, I'll end the discussion as the cynic and the skeptic, but I think North Korea's bottom line is the bottom line they've had for 25 years. They are willing to give us access to their Yongbyon complex, which is roughly half of what they have. They're willing to go through a step-by-step salami-slicing process of inspections and freezing and slowly dismantling and theoretically getting rid of that half of their program in exchange for substantially all sanctions lifting and acknowledgement that they are a nuclear weapon state, and they get to keep the other half of their nuclear weapons program, which is I believe what the North Koreans have always been willing to do. I don't think Donald Trump has changed that at all. He went from fire and fury to Singapore to walking out of Hanoi. There's a lot of drama. It's not the art of the deal. It's the performance art of the deal.
Dr. Mike Green: Bottom line is, we face that choice. Donald Trump's diplomacy had very little to do with it. It may be surfacing it, but do we acknowledge them as a nuclear weapon state, lift sanctions for half their stuff, knowing the other half will be there. I would oppose it, but that's a fair debate. I don't think that this is really a question of summitry and crossing the DMZ. That's theater.
Kurt Campbell: Yeah, I agree. But Andrew, I will say this, though. One hears persistent rumors and feedback that on occasion the president will ask what's wrong with just letting them have, some acknowledging that he seems like a perfectly reasonable guy. We can live with these guys. You know, so what? We can manage the results. I think there have been enough people that have pushed back on this now, that I don't think the president has as yet been prepared to move in that direction. But my instinct tells me that he would take that deal. If he is reelected, then he will have the opportunity to completely reshape the Republican party. The only thing that will then matter, the way you're tested, is not what your views are on trade, what your views on human rights, are you able to hew immediately, even if it means changing course 180 degrees with the line that the president sets?
Dr. Mike Green: It's worrisome in an Asia chessboard strategic context, because I don't think the president is thinking about the other chessboard that we're talking about, the larger Asia chessboard. The U.S. strategy we know today, our alliances in particular, our forward military presence, that was all defined and put in place by what happened in the Korean Peninsula in 1950. And what happens next on the Korean Peninsula is going to be no less consequential for our alliances, our strategic relationship with China. I don't think the president's thinking about that larger chessboard at all.
Kurt Campbell: I agree with that.
Dr. Mike Green: Whatever you decide about whether we can live with nukes or not live with nukes, that piece we've got to get right. And I'm not sure how much they're thinking about it.
Kurt Campbell: Andrew, I would say just as we're not thinking about it as much, it's all that China thinks about.
Dr. Mike Green: Yes.
Andrew Schwartz: Well, as always, you two are incredibly fascinating, and I'm incredibly lucky that I've been around you all for the last 15 years and incredibly lucky that when I came in to CSIS as a young man, Kurt Campbell listened to me as a young guy and empowered me. And shortly after, Mike Green came in and-
Dr. Mike Green: As a young man, and you empowered me.
Andrew Schwartz: Yeah, well, the same thing. Yeah, thanks to both of you.
Kurt Campbell: Thank you. This is great.
Kurt Campbell: Thank you very much.
Andrew Schwartz: Thanks for listening. For more on strategy and the Asia Program's work, visit the CSIS website at csis.org, and click on the Asia Program page.