U.S. Foreign Policy: A Review of the New Trump Administration and its Potential Impact on Geopolitics


Ralph Cossa

President of the Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu and senior editor of the Forum’s quarterly electronic journal, Comparative Connections



Motohisa Fujii

Director General of International Politics Division, Happy Science

Just after the inaugural address of President Trump, we had a precious opportunity to interview Mr. Ralph Cossa, the president of Pacific Forum CSIS, a prominent Think Tank based in Honolulu, Hawaii. Mr. Cossa is a distinguished specialist for his strategic thinking, especially in his view on geopolitics of the Asia Pacific. As the new administration started, this region could become more unstable than in the previous Obama era. Through his interview, Cossa exclusively expanded his outlook in the near future.

Fujii: First of all, I’d like to ask you what you think of the new situation. What is your impression of the Trump administration?


The Trump Transition

Cossa: Well, we’re still learning about Mr. Trump, and Mr. Trump is still learning about being president. So, we’re in a transition period right now. His team is coming. Secretary of Defence has been approved and the Secretary of State will be approved. Until Mr. Trump’s full team is in place and we start getting more clarity in our policies, we’re still in a “wait and see” mode.


Consistency in U.S. Policy – the Strength of Continuity

The important thing to understand about U.S. foreign policy is that it doesn’t automatically change with every president. 99% of the people who work in the national security and foreign policy establishment who were there on January 19 are still there on January 20. The Secretary changes, the Deputy Secretary, and the Assistant Deputy Secretary change. However, most of the people doing the work are the same. They are pursuing the same policies. So, if your job was to work on the U.S.-Japan alliance two weeks ago, your job is still to work on the U.S.-Japan alliance. That’s part of the strength of our government – that continuity.


Trump’s relationship with Japan and Asia

Everything that I see, as far as what the President has said, indicates that our relationship with Japan will continue to be a strong one. So, we’ll have to just wait and see now whether or not there are any changes at the margin; but we expect to still have an important cooperative relationship.


On Choosing a Knowledgeable Ambassador to Japan

Fujii: Mr. Trump is said to be “an outsider”, not from Washington politics. So, some people engaged in the U.S.-Japan alliance are afraid that they will find confusion in East Asia and South East Asia policy. Several months ago, you recommended that Mr. Richard Armitage be the next ambassador to Japan. He is very knowledgeable about Japan and the US-Japan alliance. What was your intention with regard to that?

Cossa: What I was trying to point out is that we need to have very knowledgeable ambassadors in the various countries. There are two things about ambassadors: One is that you hope they are people who understand the political process or have good staff around them that does. Second, you want an ambassador who can pick up the phone and call the President. Caroline Kennedy did not have a lot of diplomatic experience but had a close personal relationship with President Obama. So, the Japanese people were happy because they knew that she could pick up the phone and Obama would answer. That is probably even more important than having the basic knowledge. To the extent that somebody has both, we’re much better off, of course.

Mr. Armitage is someone who knows Japan very well but he’s not obviously been the President’s choice. I don’t know the gentleman who has been nominated to be the ambassador to Japan, but presumably, he’s someone with a good link to President Trump. That is what’s most important. This is because he’ll have a very strong team around him of State Department professionals. I’m sure you know, the Deputy Chief of Mission is the one that runs the day-to-day operation and advises the ambassador.


Making the Right Cabinet Choices

Fujii: In recent news, Mr. Jim Mattis is going to Korea and Japan. How do you see him as Secretary of Defence? And what do you think was the purpose of his visit?

Cossa: I think that Mr. Mattis’s selection as Secretary of Defence was an extremely good one.

Fujii: Good one?

Cossa: In fact, of all the cabinet positions, it’s the best as far as putting someone in the job who understands the requirements; that understands the existing obligations and commitments and understands world politics. General Mattis certainly fits all of those descriptions. His choice of going to Japan and Korea first is not an accident. There’s recognition in Washington that when a new president comes in, there’s always great anxiety. Eight years ago, there was anxiety about President Obama. Would he continue to be focused on Asia? As it turns out, he developed a pivot to focus on Asia as the number one priority.

So, General Mattis is trying to again, send the right message that he and the new Administration recognize the importance of Asia and the importance of alliances with Japan and Korea. He’s going there to reassure our traditional allies of U.S. commitment. You’ll find that this is not unusual. Eight years ago, Secretary Clinton’s first trip was to Asia as well as to Japan. I would hope that, assuming Secretary Tillerson is confirmed, that Asia will be, early on, one of his visits as well, to again, reinforce the nature of the relationship.


On the Trump meeting with Prime Minister Abe

Prime Minister Abe was the first foreign leader to meet with President-elect Trump and will be meeting with President Trump very shortly in another month or so. Again, that kind of personal interaction is important and reassuring.

Fujii: Do you think that meeting was successful? There are not so many reports on that.

Cossa: Yes. I think, first of all, you have to understand that tradition in the United States is, we have one president at a time. So, it would have been very inappropriate for Mr. Trump to be talking about American foreign policy publicly with Mr. Abe because that would be undermining the current president. So, that’s why they kept their discussion private. However, Mr. Abe did say it was a good face-to-face meeting. Building the personal relationship between the two, is very important. That’s already begun. That is good news for both of the U.S. and Japan.


What was the meaning of the Trump-Tsai Telephone Call?

Fujii: Another news report was a telephone call between Mr. Trump and Ms. Tsai, Taiwan president. I think that was very shocking to the Chinese government. What do you expect will be the next move in the U.S.-China relationship, and U.S.-Taiwan relationship?

Cossa: I think Mr. Trump likes to surprise people – and shock people. Certainly, he did that by accepting the phone call from President Tsai. That is obviously, something that hadn’t happened before. If he picks up a phone and calls her when he’s President that is significant. Talking as a President-elect is just trying to demonstrate a certain amount of independence. I don’t see that as, in itself, a significant change in U.S. policy. The Taiwanese were very happy on that day. Then, they became very nervous that somehow or other, Taiwan might be a bargaining chip with China. I don’t think that will happen either. Taiwan is not a U.S. property that we can bargain. Taiwan is an independent entity and will remain that way.


Making China Nervous

So, he got a lot of people’s attention, which he likes to do. He made the Chinese nervous, and he’s also been trying to keep the Chinese from being too overconfident about their ability to deal with Mr. Trump. He needs to be a little more cautious as he is now President. What he was saying and tweeting as President-elect is one thing: As President, it’s another. So, I hope that we will see perhaps a little more measured activity regarding China and Taiwan. Taiwan is going to worry about Taiwan. It won’t do anything that will openly provoke the Chinese. I think Mr. Trump will learn to be a little more nuanced and a little more careful in dealing with a Cross-Strait issue.


Defending Japan and East Asia

Fujii: During the Trump administration, do you think there would be a geopolitical change in East Asia?

Cossa: I would be willing to bet that if we have this discussion one year from now, you will find that U.S. policy vis-a-vis China, Taiwan, alliances and Senkakus will look very much like the policy looked six months ago. There won’t, I believe, be dramatic changes. There is no question that Senkaku falls within the U.S.-Japan alliance. This wasn’t a presidential opinion. This has been consistent, legal obligation because the U.S.-Japan treaty says that the U.S. will defend Japan and territories administered by Japan. There is no question that Senkaku is administered by Japan since the United States gave them to Japan to administer. So that is not an issue and shouldn’t be an issue. I think people worry but I don’t think there’s a real need to be worried or to spend too much time focusing on that.


The One China Policy

I think the One China policy may be tweaked. We may do a little bit more with Taiwan than we’ve done before, but it’s not going to significantly change in part because Taiwan doesn’t want it to significantly change. It would undermine their diplomatic relationship. We already saw that with the telephone call. While it is obvious that both sides had agreed in advance to this telephone call, the Chinese primarily blamed Tsai in Taiwan.

So, if the U.S. does something with Taiwan that the Chinese don’t like, the Chinese may not have a lot of ways to “punish” the United States for it, but they have lots of ways in which they can “punish” Taiwan. This includes tightening of restrictions: Reduce Cross-Strait visitors, flights. There are many things without ever firing a shot where they can make Taiwan’s life even more miserable vis a vis diplomatic relations with various countries. So, Taiwan is not looking for a fight with the Mainland. President Tsai is primarily domestic oriented, trying to make sure that Taiwan prospers. So, again, I would argue that after all is said and done, things will look very much the same a year from now as they looked a year ago.

Fujii: Do you think Trump’s phone call with Ms. Tsai was a bargaining chip against the Chinese government?

Cossa: First of all, I think it was an attempt to do something to get headlines and a little shocking. It was putting the Chinse on notice that things might be a little bit different and that they need to reaffirm things with the new Administration. It also reflected Mr. Trump listening to his nonprofessional advisors. There were a lot of people around Mr. Trump when he was candidate and President-elect, who had a certain view about Taiwan and about China. Those were the people who were whispering in his ear. Now that he’s President, he’s going to have other people whispering in his ear including: the Secretary of State, the National Security Advisor and the Secretary of Defence. They will be giving him a different message. He’s a very smart man and he will understand the importance of the messages he’s being given.


The U.S. – Russian Relationship and Terrorism

Fujii: In reference to U.S. foreign policy, Mr. Mattis is known as a hard-liner against ISIS. Another issue is the expanding China. So there would be a Russia card, very effective in world politics for the Trump Administration. What do you think?

Cossa: I wrote about defining the threats. When we talk about Russia as an existential threat to the United States, it’s because Russia, like the United States, has a nuclear arsenal that is capable of destroying humanity. Clearly, ISIS cannot destroy the United States. It cannot destroy democracy. It cannot destroy our way of life. It can kill a bunch of people and obviously, we need to defend against that. If the Russians will co-operate with us in defending against ISIS, and eliminating ISIS, that makes the job easier. We still have to remember who the existential threat is.


The North Korean Threat and China

The same regards North Korea. North Korea cannot destroy the United States. It cannot destroy Japan. However, it could create a lot of damage. It could, obviously, even with its conventional weapons, cause hundreds and thousands of casualties in Korea, and many in Japan as well. So, I think that’s a threat we have to take seriously. That’s a threat also, where we want Chinese and Russian co-operation. There’s also many of Mr. Trump’s advisors who see China as the long-term challenge to the United States. China is not an existential threat to the United States. China does not want to conquer the U.S. It doesn’t want to take us over. It may want to “buy in” a little bit more, as Japan wanted “in” for many years to make profits. However, it’s not trying to destroy our way of life, but it is challenging U.S. alliances and U.S. position in Asia.

So, I think we need to recognize that and co-operate with China where we can, but be prepared to compete with them where we have to. That’s a strategic vision we share with Japan. Japan has very much, the same view. Japan has a lot of investment in China. There are a lot of Japanese companies in China, so Japan is helping China to rise. At the same time, there are things that China threatens Japan. So Japan needs to be cautious of that and needs to have a balanced policy where you can co-operate and where there’s competition, you need to be prepared to do it smartly. That’s ultimately what we will see. In that area, our policies have already been very much in agreement and will continue to be in agreement under President Trump.

Fujii: According to news coverage, the North Korean official declared that they have the capability of launching an ICBM. I think it’s very threatening to not only Japan, but also to the United States. It would be a critical situation around North Korea. What are your thoughts?


The Continued Importance of UN Sanctions on North Korea

Cossa: I have cautioned our North Korean colleagues. We meet with them in New York and elsewhere from time to time. I have cautioned them to not brag about capabilities that they don’t have. If we believe that they were capable of striking the United States with an ICBM, and then put a missile on a launcher and threaten us, then we might have to take actions that they wouldn’t particularly like. I don’t think North Korea is at a position today, where it can put a nuclear warhead on a missile and hit either Japan or the United States, but they’re certainly working in that direction. We need to be aware of that. We need to try and prevent that. That’s what the whole idea of the UN sanctions is about. We need to be tighter on those sanctions to prevent that type of capability from developing, or at least slow it down.


Dealing with North Korea

On the other hand, I think we need to be talking with the North Koreans. We do that at the non-governmental level. At some point, the governments need to talk with one another again. Every administration when they come in, first of all, talks very tough about the North Koreans and has a review about “What are we going to do with these guys”? I’m sure this administration will do its own North Korea policy review and try to come up with a new plan. The real challenge right now in dealing with North Korea, is that it’s very important that whatever policy Washington and Tokyo follows, that it is in synch with policies being followed by Seoul.


Political Chaos in Seoul

Right now, there is political chaos in Seoul. The current President is under impeachment. There is an Acting President in their stead. There’s going to be elections at the end of the year at the latest, but could very well be very shortly, if in fact the impeachment is upheld. So, it’s hard to really develop a co-ordinated coherent policy toward North Korea until we know who’s in charge in Seoul. I think that’s one of the challenges.


Japan’s withdrawal of its Ambassador to Korea

Here, if I can be somewhat critical of the Japanese government, the recent spat between Japan and Korea over Comfort Women’s statutes: Japan making some demands and withdrawing its ambassador: This is the equivalent of kicking a friend when they’re down. I don’t think it’s helpful for Korea and I don’t think it’s helpful for Japan. I don’t think it makes a lot of sense strategically to be doing that. This would be a very good time for Tokyo to step back and not try to pressure South Korea at a time when the government is in disarray. I was very disappointed to see the recall of the ambassador and the current things that are going on there, because I think that Japan could be doing better and be a little more understanding of the challenges in Korea right now.


Reviewing the Defence policy in Japan

Fujii: In my opinion, North Korea is a very imminent threat to the Japanese. And it is time to review the defence policy in Japan. Mr. Trump insisted that Japan should share the military budget. What do you think?


Time for Prime Minister Abe to “Seize the Opportunities”

Cossa: First of all, let me say that Mr. Trump talked about Japan and cost sharing as a candidate. I dismiss everything candidates say. As President-elect and as President, he has not brought this issue up. Japan is nervous about it. The U.S. media keeps talking about it. However, there hasn’t been any statement from the Trump administration talking about Japan not paying its fair share. When you look at the facts, Japan pays a significant amount of the costs involved with basing Americans there. Right now, we have an agreement, and that agreement lasts for a couple more years. So, I don’t see anyone reopening that agreement. There’s a lot of other things that need to be dealt with.

In the meantime, I think there’s an opportunity for Mr. Abe to move in the direction he want, anyway. That is, to have Japan be a much more active player, and hence have a stronger military capability in Japan. So, I think this is going to be driven more by Mr. Abe’s desires. He may use American “Gaiatsu” as an excuse which won’t be the first time that’s happened. I think there’s an opportunity here for Mr. Abe to move forward. Mr. Glosserman, my deputy, wrote a bit about how Mr. Abe can seize opportunities right now.


Revising the Japanese Constitution

Fujii: Now seventy years have passed since World War II, then it is time the Japanese should revise the Constitution.

Cossa: I think there are many Japanese who believe that, and I think that’s a Japanese decision. I don’t think Americans should be pushing Japan to do it, or pushing Japan not to do it. I think this is a domestic decision. As far as Americans are concerned, we should have enough faith and confidence in our ally. We support whatever decision Japan makes, and not feed into the hysteria by many of Japan’s neighbours who are very political. They think that somehow or other, Japan is remilitarising and that Japan is becoming a threat, just as I don’t think anyone sees the strengthening of the German armed forces as a threat to Europe.


Supporting Japanese Decisions

There are many things Japan can do to have a more professional, stronger military. These are appropriate decisions for Japanese leaders, if they want to go in that direction. The Americans should support it. We shouldn’t be trying to force it on Japan. I think we need to respect Japan’s decisions in those regards, and I understand it’s a sensitive political issue in Japan. I don’t think we should be seen as part of that political debate, quite frankly.

Fujii: Would there be better co-operation in U.S.-Japan alliance, if Japan revised the pacifist Constitution?

Cossa: I think we’ve already seen an improvement in co-operation as the result of collective self-defence legislation. I think that’s been a very important step forward. That has allowed us to do more realistic training together and more realistic contingency planning together. So, those types of things work very much to our benefit.


The CSIS Report

Fujii: For several years, Master Ryuho Okawa, Happy Science founder & CEO, has advocated passing the secret bill and collective defence security bill, and pro-nuclear energy policy. I think they are almost the same opinion with the Armitage-Nye report by CSIS.

Cossa: Well, first of all, there is no CSIS opinion. There are people at CSIS that provide recommendations for people to consider. I personally am a supporter of nuclear energy. I think Japan is the model for nuclear energy support. The Fukushima disaster was obviously a terrible event, but it was a once in a thousand year phenomenon. An earthquake of that size, the largest ever Tsunami of that size. It is quite remarkable that as little damage was done as has happened when you look at the severity of the natural disaster.


Reintroducing Nuclear Power into Japan

I understand now, that attempts are being made to reintroduce nuclear power into Japan, and I think it will be done in a safe way. I’ve been to Fukushima. I’ve been to other nuclear power plants previously and I’m very impressed with Japan’s nuclear energy program. As in the United States and every other country, public opinion matters. I think the government has a great responsibility to persuade people to move beyond the “not in my backyard” syndrome. We don’t object to nuclear power, if it’s in someone else’s prefecture but not in ours. I think that has been a challenge. My own sense is that Japan is moving back into the area of responsible use of nuclear energy and I personally would have no problem with that. I don’t think the U.S. government would have a problem with that. I can only give you my personal opinion. I can’t speak for CSIS in Washington and certainly not for the U.S. government.


Using the “Russia Card”

Fujii: My last question is on Russia. Mr. Trump is known as having a pro-Russia stance. Do you think using the Russia card could be effective?

Cossa: Well, I think that you need to approach Russia carefully. Remember, the George W. Bush administration tried a reset of the relations with Russia. President Bush looked in Putin’s eyes and saw someone he could deal with. Remember that the Obama administration tried to reset the button: We were going to have a positive relationship with the Russians. That fell apart as well, because in my view, the Russians need us as an enemy in order to do some of the things that they want. I would like to see us become more co-operative with the Russians. The Soviet Union had a quest for world domination. That was certainly a threat to the United States. Mr. Putin is not trying to dominate the world. He’s trying to rebuild the old Soviet Union. His definition of his own country differs from ours because he looks at Central Asia. He looks at other areas as being part of Russia.


The Abe move to Cooperation with Russia

So, I think we need to find ways to co-operate. I don’t think there’s anything that anyone can do that would force the Russians to give Crimea back. I think Mr. Trump is a realist there. Crimea is gone. Get over it! Accept it. Let’s move on. Certainly, you don’t want to do that in a way that encourages him to grab more of Ukraine. We’ve got to make sure we’ve drawn a line that there’s an understanding there. However, to the extent we can find some way to co-operate, to the extent that the Russians are prepared to co-operate, then, maybe a fresh approach is useful. Again, here’s somewhere that Mr. Abe may be leading the way. He’s been trying to do his own co-operation with Mr. Putin. So, we can finally end World War II between Japan and Russia. That would be a good thing, in my view as well. Again, there are some people who criticize Mr. Abe for that. I don’t. I think he is looking out for Japan and that is what he’s supposed to do.


The “Russia Card” and China

Fujii: According to Master Okawa’s opinion, Russia could be a counter power to expanding China. What do you think of that?

Cossa: I think there is certainly a logic behind that. One of the things I tried to point out was that you might have what some people call “a reverse Nixon”. Nixon aligned with China in order to deal with the Soviet Union. Now, China is a rising power and a potential rising threat. Russia talks about how they have these strategic relations with the Chinese, but the Russians and Chinese don’t trust one another at all. If Mr. Trump is trying to play a Russia card against China, then, I’d say, there’s some strategic rationale behind that. But you have to do it very carefully. You have to understand you really can’t trust either one of them.

Ronald Reagan used to say: “Trust but verify.” You need to make sure that where your national interest and theirs overlap, you have an area of co-operation, and we should co-operate. One of those areas is in making sure that China doesn’t become a threat to both of us in the future. That requires diplomacy. That requires being subtle. That requires very professional and capable diplomats. That’s what we hope for.

Fujii: Thank you so much for the interview.

U.S. Foreign Policy: A Review of the New Trump Administration and its Potential Impact on Geopolitics
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