November 9, 2017
Good Luck with that, Mr. President
By Robert Hathaway
Director Emeritus, Asia Program, Woodrow Wilson Center

Donald Trump hopes to leverage American power when he meets with foreign leaders on his trip through Asia this month. While threats and ultimatums may win him support at home, strong-arming other countries often produces the opposite response from that hoped for.

President Donald Trump believes in American power. Specifically, he believes that America’s great strength gives him leverage to persuade or compel others to behave as he thinks they should.

True, the United States possesses immense power. But turning that power into diplomatic leverage is not as easy as Trump apparently assumes. Until the president learns how to leverage U.S. power, his diplomatic initiatives are likely to produce frustration and failure.

During his presidential campaign, Trump assured voters that he would force Mexico to pay for the border wall he wants to build. He would compel Iran to renegotiate the 2015 nuclear agreement, which enjoyed broad international support. He would force North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program. He would get China to stop its unfair trade practices. He would insist that U.S. allies pick up more of the common defense burden and spend more on military commitments.

Prior to departing on his visit through Asia in November, administration officials outlined a trip agenda that reflected the president’s belief in the leverage offered by American power. In Japan, he would insist that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe abandon his long-standing commitment to an 11-nation trade accord and work instead toward a bilateral U.S.-Japan trade agreement. In South Korea, he would force President Moon Jae-in to reopen the five-year-old U.S.-South Korean trade agreement and grant the United States more favorable terms. He would also walk Moon back from the South Korean’s inclination to engage diplomatically with North Korea.

Yet, Trump’s confidence in American power is nowhere more apparent than in his thinking about China.

During last year’s presidential campaign, he declared that the United States had “tremendous power” over China. “Without us,” he boasted, “China would be in serious trouble.”  President Barak Obama, Trump charged, had refused to “apply [the] leverage on China necessary to rein in North Korea. We have the leverage. We have the power over China … and we can get them to do what they have to do with North Korea.”

Trump’s visits to Japan, South Korea and China will give him an opportunity to put his beliefs to the test. But not everyone is as confident about America’s ability to strong-arm other countries.

Make no mistake about it: It is better to possess power than to be without it. But to use power as leverage requires a subtlety and a dexterity Trump has so far not displayed.

Threats, demands, and public ultimatums may win votes at home, but they do not usually persuade other nations to take actions counter to their own interests, perceived or real. Indeed, threatening another country, particularly in public, often produces the exact opposite response from that hoped for.

National pride and a sense of honor are important in foreign policy. All countries want to be treated with respect and dignity. Less powerful countries in particular are alive to the danger of being “humiliated.” Since the United States – for all the challenges it faces – is still the world’s most powerful nation, Trump’s Washington must be especially aware of the need to avoid coming across as an arrogant bully.

Paradoxically, leverage is generally most effective when the target country barely recognizes it is being leveraged.

Throughout history, powerful nations have discovered that having a huge advantage in traditional measures of power does not automatically provide leverage or guarantee diplomatic success. Otherwise, how does one explain the Castro brothers having managed to remain a thorn in America’s side for more than half a century?

As he travels around Asia this month, Trump would do well to contemplate the paradox: Soothing language and a willingness to offer face-saving concessions are as important as threats and coercion in exerting, and achieving, leverage.

Robert HathawayRobert M. Hathaway is a public policy fellow and director emeritus of the Asia program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. He served as director of the Wilson Center’s Asia Program for sixteen years and, earlier in his career, for twelve years on the professional staff of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, where he specialized in U.S. foreign policy toward Asia. His new book The Leverage Paradox: Pakistan and the United States (Wilson Center Asia Program) will appear in November 2017.