When the Trilateral Commission – a group of political and business leaders, journalists, and academics – met in Singapore recently, many expressed concern about the decline of American leadership in Asia.
Every Asian country now trades more with China than with the United States, often by a margin of two to one. That concern has been exacerbated by President Donald Trump’s recent imposition of tariffs and expressions of contempt for multilateral institutions. A frequently heard question in Singapore: Will US leadership in Asia survive the Trump years?
History provides some perspective. In 1972, President Richard Nixon unilaterally imposed tariffs on America’s allies without warning, violated the framework of the International Monetary Fund, and pursued an unpopular war in Vietnam.
Fear of terrorism was widespread, and experts expressed concern about the future of democracy.
The following year, David Rockefeller and Zbigniew Brzezinski created the Trilateral Commission, which meets once a year to discuss such problems.
Contrary to conspiracy theories, the Commission has little power; but, like other informal channels of “track two” diplomacy, it allows private citizens to explore ways to manage thorny issues. The results can be found in its publications and on its website.
In Singapore, there was no consensus about Asia after Mr Trump. For example, Indian and Chinese members held different positions about the role of China’s “Belt and Road” infrastructure projects.
Some Asians and Americans differed over the prospects for a successful resolution of the Korean nuclear crisis, as well as the larger question of whether a China-US war is inevitable. And some Europeans wondered whether the current global uncertainty reflects the rise of China or the rise of Mr Trump.
My own guess, which I warned the group might be wrong, is that the US can recover its leadership after the Trump years if it relearns the lessons of using power with others as well as over others.
In other words, the US will have to use its soft power to create networks and institutions that will allow it to cooperate with China, India, Japan, Europe, and others to deal with transnational problems – for example, monetary stability, climate change, terrorism, and cyber-crime – that no country can solve unilaterally.
That will require overcoming the unilateral policies and attitudes associated with the rise of Mr Trump.
As for the rise of China, contrary to current pessimism, the US will retain important power advantages that will last longer than even an eight-year presidency, should Mr Trump be reelected.