The news media have been quick to note US President Donald Trump’s embrace of bombing in Syria and the need for NATO as reversals of the foreign policy he advocated on the stump. But he’s made another flip in the past week that’s just as consequential, and possibly more important for his future foreign policy. By asking China to “solve the North Korean problem” in exchange for an improved trade deal, Trump has embraced linkage.
Broadly, linkage is the idea that economic policy and geopolitical strategy can be used in tandem, with trade-offs between the two realms. This idea wasn’t on Trump’s radar before the election, especially not with respect to China.
Candidate Trump famously took a hard line on China and trade, while simultaneously signaling that he didn’t much care about China’s geostrategic expansion and conflict with other Pacific powers, including the United States.
Now that he’s president, Trump is realizing that he can’t soft-pedal global security to the extent his rhetoric suggested he might. That explains his turn toward the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which he trashed on the campaign trail.
Probably the generals around Trump are subtly emphasizing this point. After all, these are men whose whole careers have been devoted to the goal of global security. The concern about North Korea -- and the implicit subordination of economic interest to security -- has the whiff of the generals’ preoccupations.
The Syria episode also carried lessons related to North Korea. The first, learned before the US bombing, was that dictators like Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will take advantage of what they perceive as weakness, with little concern for the consequences to Trump. The US president surely understood that the deployment of chemical weapons had something to do with his administration’s message that the US no longer sought Assad’s ouster.
In that sense, Assad’s use of chemical weapons was a slap in Trump’s face -- and that is surely part of his rapid swing from indifference to retaliation.
Then, after the bombing, Trump also learned that foreign policy hawks from both the Democratic and Republican parties will support him if he takes bold action against a notorious bad actor.
The generals won’t have let it escape Trump’s notice that North Korea has been unusually aggressive in testing and firing missiles since his election. Part of this is that Kim Jong-un just wants to be noticed by the new administration. But part is that is he and his advisers are trying to see how much they can get away with during the tenure of a president who ran on a platform of disengaging from the defense of US allies in the Pacific.
Unlike Syria, Trump can’t just bomb North Korea -- not without the risk of provoking retaliation on South Korea. Even a conventional North Korean attack on Seoul could kill hundreds of thousands in that densely populated city. A nuclear attack could do much worse.
That has led Trump to look for leverage against North Korea -- and that in turn has led him to China.
Trump can’t credibly threaten China militarily. And that’s why, presumably, he’s trying to bribe China instead.
The only obvious way to bribe China is by offering something China might want and that Trump has threatened not to provide, namely a good trade deal. Voila, linkage.
This form of linkage is unlikely to work this time, however, for at least two reasons.
One is that China’s ability to “solve” North Korea is limited. Yes, China has huge influence through economic ties and subsidies. But China also needs North Korea as a buffer between itself and US ally South Korea -- and North Korea knows that.
The consequence is that there’s no easy way to rein in the Kim regime without toppling it. And that’s an outcome China really doesn’t want. The US similarly has less leverage than one might think over its dependent allies. That’s something Trump will discover in the Middle East, assuming he tries to press Israel to make real concessions to the Palestinians.
The other reason linkage likely won’t work for North Korea is that Trump hasn’t credibly given China enough incentive. A “better” trade deal is only a meaningful prize compared to some baseline.
Yet it’s far from clear that there will even be a trade deal with China, and the absence of such a deal doesn’t pose a serious problem for China unless the US starts putting tariffs on Chinese products.
Any such tariffs -- for example, an anti-dumping tariff on steel -- are going to be challenged by China before the World Trade Organization. The long delays of such a challenge will be costly to China, to be sure. But China has almost certainly already figured the risks and costs of such a tariff into its pricing strategy.
What’s more, Trump’s own actions have already removed some of the US’s bargaining power. At one time, the Americans might have tempted China with the offer of membership in a regional trade deal, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which intentionally excluded the Chinese. But Trump killed the TPP in his first week in office.
But none of this is as important as the fact that, on the job, Trump is thinking in terms of linking economics and geopolitics. That’s good news. There’s no way to manage the extraordinarily complex US-China relationship without considering both sides of the equation -- and their influences on each other.
Winston Churchill is often credited with the line that the US always does the right thing once it’s exhausted all the alternatives. Maybe, very slowly, Trump’s foreign policy thinking is starting to develop in the right direction.By Noah Feldman
Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. -- Ed.