Center Spotlight | The Trump Administration in the Asia-Pacific

Tower Center Senior Fellow Diana Newton sat down with us to discuss the facets of U.S.-Japan relationships and how they are playing a role in regional tensions. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


How did you become involved with the Tower Center?

When I moved to Dallas from New York City, I was an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, working as the Project Director for the CFR Task Force on the Future Directions of US Economic Policy Toward Japan.  Cal Jillson was the Director of the Tower Center at that time, and he graciously agreed to allow me to work at the Center while I finished up the Task Force project.  Once that work concluded, Dr. Jillson gave me the opportunity to set up the Sun & Star Program on Japan and East Asia which was a new program that had recently received funding.  Given my background working on Japan, it seemed like a natural fit and allowed me to transition from being a fellow at CFR to being a fellow at the Tower Center.

SMU Senior Fellow Diana Newton

What’s your favorite thing about teaching Tower Scholars in their Gateway to Global Policy Making course (PPIA 2380)?

Without hesitation, the students.  Each cohort brings a fresh set of faces from diverse majors, backgrounds, and interests.  I learn so much from their perspectives and questions.  They always push me to consider different ideas and viewpoints which I find refreshing and interesting.  Also, because it is a course oriented toward current U.S. foreign policy, we enjoy tackling together issues and events that are unfolding in the daily news cycle.  Perhaps a close second favorite thing is getting to run our midterm and final simulations of mock National Security Council meetings in the Situation Room we have at the Bush Library.  It is the very same Situation Room that I worked in when I was in the White House — President Bush was able to move it panel by panel to his Library when he updated and upgraded the Situation Room at the White House.  It makes me a little nostalgic every time we meet for class!

One of the highlights of my experience in your class was the situation room simulations on international issues where the cohort all assumed the roles of National Security Council members informing the president on his/her policy options. How did you come up with such a unique midterm/final format, and what let you to believe that this would be valuable to the students who underwent the mock councils?

I stole the idea from my boss at the National Security Council, Jim Steinberg.  He taught a class on public policy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at UT Austin, where he created a national security crisis related to the policy issues his class had studied and assigned his class cabinet positions.  I thought it would be a fun way to make the memo writing come alive for the students and so I adapted it to my class.  Secretary Steinberg had to hold his mock NSC meeting in a classroom though, because the LBJ Library does not have a situation room like we do at the Bush Library!

Do you have current projects/main issues that you’re working on that you would like to talk about?

I am particularly interested in U.S.-Japan relations right now, and in particular how Prime Minister Abe is trying to manage the bilateral security alliance, maintain free trade, and keep a strong personal relationship with President Trump, while also hedging his bets given the current U.S. administration’s efforts to reduce joint security or at least the costs of it, to abrogate multilateral trade agreements like TPP, and to negotiate with North Korea and China without consulting with Japan.  I have been watching carefully how Abe has been trying to walk the tightrope between maintaining a strong relationship with the U.S. and keeping his nation’s priorities front and center.  I think he has been doing a good job in a difficult situation.  It will be interesting to see how the U.S.-Japan relationship plays out in Japanese domestic discussions of amending Constitutional Article 9 to allow Japan to rearm and build and offensive military force.  I researched this in preparation for a talk I gave on the American perspective of the U.S.-Japan security relationship at a Tower Center Sun & Star conference in Washington, DC in May, titled U.S.-Japan Relations in Disarray: Who Will Sustain Liberal International Order, and How?

Do you think that that liberal international order is being sustained by the US, or do you think that’s going to be sustained by another country or maybe a broader coalition of countries?

I think one of the problems that stems directly from the current administration being less enthusiastic about its alliances, being unpredictable, and maybe in some cases ambivalent about spending resources on alliances, one of the results of that is very much that a lot of our allies are feeling the need to craft other alliances that they can rely on, or to hedge their bets, at the very least, to say, “We’d love it if the US would come to our aid, as they said they would in the Security Alliance, but if they don’t come to our aid, we need to have other friends that we can rely on.” It’s not a military example, but a very good example is the TTP (Transpacific Trade Partnership), right? Japan felt that the United States said they were going to pull out and all the candidates in the 2016 election said they were going to pull out of the TTP. And so as a result Japan spent a few months (Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in particular) trying to convince Trump before he pulled out of the deal before he was inaugurated, he spent time trying to talk him into not leaving the TTP. And then once Trump left the TTP, Abe spent time trying to talk President Trump in the US and trade representatives into re-entering the TTP. When that wasn’t successful, he finally just said we’re going to do it with the 11 countries that remain. However, they negotiated it in such a way that the US could re-enter at a future time. I think that was brilliant. I also think that’s the wave of what we’re going to see more of. It’s not just Abe, but our European friends thinking, “If the US is not going to honor their commitments, what are we going to do about it, and how?” And I would say that is–frankly, completely–the policy that President Trump articulated in running for office: it shouldn’t be on us, it should be on others. I think our unpredictability is unfortunate, because I really believe in alliances and diplomacy.

As a result of the circumstances that the administration has taken, is it the case that we might be driving Japan more into cooperating with China and with President Xi Jinping? Or is it the case where, as you said, Abe is testing all the waters, and he wants to figure out what’s going to work for him and his country?

It’s a little bit of both. China’s presence is so large in the region that everyone in the region other than China feels the need to work with China a little bit. If the US is not going to show up for a future crisis, that everyone in the region, some more than others, feels the need to have a relationship with China and to have some kind of understanding of where China stands. I think Abe feels that less than, say, Vietnam would. But I do think that Abe has spent more time with President Xi during Trump’s administration. He’s trying to test out all the waters. China is a big part of the puzzle.

Is there a particular policy problem that you believe isn’t getting enough attention nationally at this moment in time?

So I don’t know that Okinawa is not getting enough attention right now, but it is a policy issue that I would prefer to see be less under the spotlight I guess, get a little bit less scrutiny, because while tensions in the Pacific are so high, while China appears to be quite aggressive, certainly in terms of building out the South China Sea islands and ratcheting up its civil military fusion policy and things like that. The base situation in Okinawa, understandably for the Okinawans, is a very important issue. I think, right now, I wouldn’t want to see any reason for US forces to have to go further afield. I do think that if the base agreement that was worked out under the Bush administration were able to happen where the base was removed from Futenma, outside of the city, that would be a good result. Right now it’s a political hot potato for Okinawa, for Tokyo in general. And I think it would, it would be something I’d like to see just sort of stay the way it is. I’d like to see the status quo continue until we get a sense of what’s going on with North Korea, what’s going on with China, and maybe what our needs are going to be as a nation.

Do you think that that particular area would be the most likely first flashpoint? Or do you think it would be more likely, say, South China Sea? Could it be the case that maybe it’s going to be something electronic (cyber-attacks)?

I certainly don’t think that the flashpoint would be Okinawa, I just think that having troops there and ready to go would be helpful if the flashpoint were to occur somewhere in the Pacific. When you have vast swathes of maritime area being controlled by different nations and different entities -China has commissioned fishing boats to act on their international waters if need be – when you’ve got all of these players out there in the water, and you’ve got young US sailors, men and women, young South Koreans, North Koreans, Chinese manning these many ships, there’s always room for an accident or for misunderstanding. In that case, having US forces on base and ready would be helpful, but I’m very hopeful that there is no need for that. And I quite agree with you, I think that cyber is the wave of the future, it is certainly an often low-risk, high-reward way to harm your adversary, and sometimes your adversary doesn’t even know that’s the case. So I do think cyber-attacks are going to become more of the norm in the Asia-Pacific as well.

As someone who has spent time working in D.C., what advice do you have for Tower Scholars and other students of the Tower Center who want to follow in your footsteps?

My best advice for students applies regardless of whether or not one hopes to work in Washington, DC.  I have found that being willing to go the extra mile at work always pays off.  It is important to come early, work hard and stay late, especially when you are first starting out.  Being reliable, organized, and professional until the very last t is crossed and i is dotted makes you a sought-after employee.  In Washington, DC, it is also so important to be physically present.  There is so much turn-over in that city, and being on the ground is the only way to hear about jobs that just pop up.  I would encourage students to take any job they can find in Washington, with the plan to move into a policy job once they are on the ground and able to network.

John G. Tower championed bipartisanship and civility during his terms as senator. With political fractionalization and partisan squabbling seemingly at a high point, were there any lessons you learned during your time on The Hill that you think are still/more applicable today?

I do think that I was blessed to work in Washington during a time where there was more room to respectfully disagree with those on the other side of the aisle.  In my experience, face-to-face communications are vital for promoting respect and listening to new or different ideas.  We communicate so much virtually now, and I think that makes it easier to dismiss our opponents.  I would recommend walking down the hall, driving down Pennsylvania Avenue or crossing the Potomac to visit face-to-face whenever you have an important issue to discuss.   The telephone and email just don’t do justice to an important discussion, and the 280 characters of Twitter seems to be more damaging means of communication than a helpful one to me.

Do you do you think that there’s maybe a particular way we go about trying to engage with people across the aisle that is falling out of practice? Or is there one that you would advocate for? How do we start dissecting that problem of hyper-partisanship?

Well, I wish I had the answer. If I had the answer maybe I’d run for president! I think that it really, fundamentally, starts with respect. Until we get to a point where it’s possible for us to say “I disagree with you, but I respect that you’re coming at this very intelligently and these are your real beliefs.” That’s a fundamental thing that we have to get to. Face to face communication helps, because when you’re on a screen, you can’t read dry sarcasm, it sounds rude or snarky, maybe, but it was meant to be funny, right? Face to face helps that. The other thing face to face gives you is you can’t dismiss someone out of hand. I think we’re a lot ruder, or so I’ve been told to on Facebook with cyber bullying or things like that, than when we are talking to someone directly. When we’re talking to someone directly, we tend to be a little bit kinder, it’s just human nature.

On the other hand, we’ve had for some time now with gerrymandering and other political items, we’ve had this sort of flame thrower kind of partisan politics. I’m sure we’ve had that at previous times in our country’s history. I’m not saying that’s never happened before. That’s sort of the nature of politics, somebody’s got to win, somebody’s got to lose, and elections have consequences. That’s what makes people love politics. But I think we’ve had a certain sort of name calling and fire throwing and scorched earth policy about our opponents for a long time, not just President Trump. President Trump does it exceptionally well, he’s very good at name calling. It’s one of his favorite things to do. I think he prides himself on coming up with clever nicknames. But we’ve been doing this for, you know, 20, 30 years. As a result, we’ve created a norm or status quo that suggests we don’t need to listen to each other because you’re on the other side, you must be wrong or stupid, or something along those lines. We need to get back to some of the, “Everybody on the other side loves this country just as much as I do. So I need to kind of understand where they’re coming from.” We need to make more compromises, obviously, but that’s very hard to do. Especially if you don’t respect the other side, and especially if you can’t go home and get reelected through compromise. Then your hands are tied if you really want to continue to serve.