I have just returned to Singapore from a week in Washington DC and had had the chance to compare notes with the Trump transition leadership and other supporters about the Trump presidency and what it might portend for US-Asia relations. Let me begin with a confession: As a lifelong Republican who nonetheless did not support the election of Mr Donald Trump, I share with many Americans the distinction of having been more wrong than right about the new President. Mr Trump has spent this past year or so out-playing, out-fighting and - dare I say it - out-thinking much of the political and media establishment in the United States. So with a dose of humility, let me put forward a few thoughts...
First, President Trump has passed his first post-election test by assembling a strong Cabinet. Rather than a gaggle of angry bloggers, he has brought in some of the more capable people around for education, health, state and defence, to name a few of his wins. The fact that some of the President's political opponents are complaining about his policies only validates the point that they cannot complain about competency. To critics who wondered whether Mr Trump could make the transition from a grievance candidate to a reform president, the Cabinet choices are a strong rebuff.
Second, sometimes it makes sense to shake things up. Let's not evaluate the President on the basis of tradition. Policies evolve, economies change, tactics need to be adjusted. The phone call with Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen, in my opinion, is an example of a useful gesture. The US' relations with Taiwan require senior-level attention and, properly managed, this redounds to the benefit of both parties and even China. If the US takes a step towards Taiwan, this gives Taiwan the confidence it needs to maintain stable relations with the mainland. One of the reasons Mr Trump won in November is that voters perceived him as a man of action. Mrs Hillary Clinton conveyed that she focused on her in-box. Mr Trump showed he focused on his out-box. Hillary campaigned as the functionary; Donald as the visionary. There are going to be changes.
Third, not only might experts be wrong; you or I might be wrong. Let's not assume that a leader is only doing a good job if he adopts policies we would adopt. China's build-up in the South China Sea might not simply be a territorial dispute. It might be a definitional moment for China and its role with its neighbours. The US needs to reassure friends and allies in the region.
Fourth, don't evaluate style over substance. The purpose of foreign policy is not comity, though that is always nice to have. The purpose is to advance the national interest. A stylised approach to communication can be useful, though it can carry costs as well. My hope for the new President is that he finds opportunities to raise the costs of bad behaviour without inflaming an issue.
Fifth, let's give the President a break. There's little value in daily carping or fault-finding. People jump on a particular tweet but miss the big picture. Let President Trump assemble his team, spell out a policy direction and evaluate him on the basis of success of his programmes. Let's allow the President some time and leeway and let's not score every move as if this were a sports game. There will be twists and turns. Reminding the Chinese leadership that there are significant aspects of China's economic and trade policy that are unfair to foreign businesses is not a bad way of starting a discussion.
Are there gaps in the above approach? Potentially. Beyond China, the new US administration has yet to articulate its approach to Asean. And just as comity is not an end in itself, nor is bombast such an end. There can be risks in increasing friction with China and we should not expect China to stand still as the US makes policy shifts. Some might even perceive contradictions: If China is not playing the game fairly, one tool is to reschedule the games and play more with others, thereby reducing China's role in trade. That was part of the logic of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which President Trump has abjured.
So while we wait for President Trump to spell out a broader Asia policy and his approach to trade, a final reminder to Americans for whom, like me, Mr Donald Trump was not their first choice: As a matter of course, we should congratulate the President. We should also wish for the best. The US is better and the world is better when the US President is successful.
As the new administration dawns, we remind ourselves that America's greatness is sparked by innumerable acts - of courage in meeting difficulties, of creativity in areas from technology to culture, and of kindness in matters large and small.
Congratulations, Mr President. The eyes of the nation and of the world are upon you. Best of luck as you assume office.
Frank Lavin is CEO of Export Now. He served in the Reagan and both the Bush administrations, including as ambassador to Singapore (2001-2005).
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 21, 2017, with the headline 'All the best, President Trump'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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