Aug 8, 2019 - Politics & Policy

Trump on the sidelines as key U.S. partners slug it out

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Several of America's key strategic partners are at each other's throats — and the U.S. seems powerless to prevent further escalation.

Why it matters: “None of these crises were made in America,” says Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “That said, we have made it worse in each case either by what we’ve done or what we haven’t done.”

Pakistan is suspending bilateral trade with India, stopping cross-border train service and downgrading diplomatic relations — all over India’s revocation of the longstanding special status of Jammu and Kashmir, its only Muslim-majority state.

  • The U.S. State Department has said it received no prior warning about India’s constitutional changes, which were accompanied by a major security crackdown in Kashmir, and referred to the event as “strictly an in­ter­nal mat­ter.”
  • However, it came just two weeks after President Trump unexpectedly told Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan he was prepared to mediate the dispute in Kashmir, which both nuclear powers claim.
  • “India’s decision to make this big move on Kashmir when it did was likely influenced in great part by Trump’s offhand mediation offer,” says Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Center. “India, by formally integrating Kashmir into India proper, has sent a strong message to Washington: There is no need for mediation.”
  • With its silence since, says Kugelman, the White House is signaling it “doesn’t want to get involved.”

Meanwhile, as North Korea fires missiles and the trade war with China heats up, Washington’s two crucial East Asian allies have turned on one another.

  • Japan’s decision to slow exports of sensitive materials that are crucial to South Korean tech firms prompted boycotts and marches in South Korea. The move came after a court ruling on compensation for victims of colonial-era forced labor that enraged Tokyo.
  • South Korea has since threatened to scrap intelligence sharing with Japan, a scenario the U.S. is eager to avoid.
  • Meetings scheduled for Friday in Bangkok between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the foreign ministers of both countries were canceled. Per the NYT, the diplomats “were said to be irked by Mr. Pompeo’s pressuring them to end their differences.”
  • A Japanese embassy official told Axios the questions of history and security that caused the rift are bilateral in nature, so there's little room for U.S. intervention. Still, neither side has expressed optimism that relations will improve soon.

In London, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is insisting the deal Theresa May negotiated with the EU is dead and it’s up to Brussels to “show flexibility” to avoid a damaging crash exit on Halloween. Hostility and distrust are flowing across the English Channel in both directions.

  • In normal circumstances, the U.S. objective would be to avert the global economic shock of a “no deal” Brexit and ensure relations between European allies remain cordial, come what may.
  • Instead, Trump pushed Theresa May to sue the EU and allied himself with the hardest-line Brexiteers, including Johnson and Nigel Farage. He’s also stressed the possibility of a U.S.-U.K. trade deal, which Brexiteers point to as a sign that they should hold the line.

The bottom line: “All of these situations argue for quiet American involvement,” Haass says. “You need the United States, behind the scenes, encouraging people to say and do things that are constructive and avoid saying and doing things that are not.”

  • “That’s old-fashioned foreign policy. This is an administration that doesn’t seem to do a lot of that.”
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