History has taught that a US president’s credibility on a major US domestic issue can be transferable to tests of will in the international arena, for good or ill.
When Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency in January 1981, the Cold War was still in full force. The leaders in Moscow, China and other hostile states had reason to wonder whether Reagan’s previous record of hardline rhetoric would be backed up in office by actual foreign policy decisions.
Instead, the first test of presidential will came on a purely internal issue when the nation’s air traffic controllers, in a labor dispute with the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), went on strike in direct breach of US law. Reagan issued a blunt ultimatum: Go back to work within 48 hours or lose your jobs.
With the operation of the nation’s air traffic control system and its vital role in the US economy at stake, the controllers’ union called Reagan’s bluff. It turned out he was not bluffing, and when the deadline passed, he summarily fired all 11,359 of the striking controllers.
Observers at home and abroad were shocked at the drastic action, but the FAA’s contingency plans kept disruption of the system to a minimum as supervisors assumed controller duties.
The message to the US’ foreign adversaries was that this was a president whose words were to be taken seriously. Even as he reversed the detente policies of his Cold War predecessors, Reagan’s assertive approach was not directly challenged by any hostile power for the balance of his two terms.
By contrast, US President Donald Trump’s handling of the partial government shutdown and its denouement have been widely perceived as a “humiliating defeat” and an admission that he might have been bluffing all along. Accurate or not, unfriendly leaders in Beijing, Pyongyang, Moscow, Damascus and Tehran might think this is a good time to take advantage of a weakened US president with a hostile US Congress and a divided population.
The Trump administration must certainly prepare for such eventualities and be ready to respond effectively. It might even wish to consider taking the initiative to disabuse unfriendly governments of any misconceptions that the US commander-in-chief is politically paralyzed.
Measures available to the president fall well short of pre-emptive military action — except possibly in Venezuela, if Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro uses violence against the people. There is a long menu of administrative options from which to choose. Reversing the withdrawal of US forces from Syria would be a good place to start, as that decision — long before the government shutdown episode — had already raised serious questions about Trump’s staying power. (In a reverse twist, US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi might even have taken her cue from that foreign policy retreat.)
Tightening, rather than loosening, sanctions on Russia would reinforce Washington’s intolerance for Moscow’s aggression in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. A strong public warning against further Russian moves in the region would be immensely useful — including affirmation that NATO will defend Estonia if its sovereignty is infringed.
China has been the most provocative in waging a new Cold War against the West and on a broader range of issues. That provides a number of potential targets for firm presidential initiatives. The Trump administration has already invigorated the weak response of former US president Barack Obama’s administration to Beijing’s aggression in the South China Sea by a stepped-up program of freedom of navigation operations.
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) escalating rhetoric and military exercises against Taiwan demand a strong US response and the president has begun to provide it by sending the US Navy through the Taiwan Strait with increasing frequency. There have probably been more transits in the past few months than in the entire previous decade. More can be said and done to prevent any Chinese miscalculation regarding Washington’s intention to stand by Taiwan — with military force if necessary.
In the meantime, the president should hold firm in negotiations with China on trade and with North Korea on denuclearization. It would increase his leverage, and be morally correct, if he would stun those governments by reviving his earlier powerful denunciation of the deplorable human rights situation in North Korea. Those major speeches — with the implied threat of regime change — probably helped bring about at least a partial change in attitude. Reinforcement of that message would help move the talks in the right direction — and would be beneficial in its own right.
It is also past time to start calling attention to China’s treatment of Chinese dissidents and of foreign individuals and governments who seek to abide by and enforce international law. Beijing must be discouraged from relying on the West’s past moral restraint and the Chinese public must be aroused to protest the shame that the Chinese Communist Party has brought in their name.
Reagan succeeded in meeting the existential threats of his era not only by his determination to keep the US militarily superior, but by his willingness to deploy its moral authority and to inspire others to follow. Freedom, human rights and democracy are the US’ edge in ideological struggles.
This president has only occasionally invoked them, but he can still make them his Trump cards.
Trump’s political opposition would find little to oppose in that approach and the US public would rally behind it. It is even possible that the US’ adversaries would welcome knowing that there are lines beyond which they dare not venture.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director in the office of the US secretary of defense. He is a fellow at the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies and a member of the advisory committee of the Global Taiwan Institute.
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