By Phil Eskeland
There has been much discussion in recent weeks regarding the policy implications of the respective party platforms of the Republican and Democratic parties. Most of the focus has been on U.S. domestic issues, such as jobs and taxes, but both party platforms contain significant sections on foreign policy, defense, and international trade.
As background, it is important to recognize that party platforms, particularly in recent U.S. political history, are not documents designed to require a presidential candidate to follow a certain policy prescription. Because of the decreasing role of the political party apparatus, presidential candidates are free to disregard the content of the platform even during the campaign season.
Also, political party platforms are written by a relatively small group of prominent political activists. U.S. political parties do not have a “think-tank” affiliated with them or academics to help them write their platforms. For Democrats, nearly 200 individuals from all walks of life helped craft the 2016 platform. For Republicans, just over 100 individuals drafted their platform. Both parties solicit outside input from multiple sources, including holding forums in key cities across America to listen directly to the American people. As a result, the platform is not written in a nuanced style to discuss complex issues but uses bold language in short sentences to encapsulate the essence of the party’s position on a certain issue.
Nonetheless, the respective platforms provide an insight into the issues state and national party luminaires believe a majority of their adherents should adopt and use to urge others to vote for their candidate. With the adoption of the Republican platform on Monday at the GOP convention in Cleveland, Ohio, there is now an opportunity to examine the policy implications for Korea and the rest of Asia, particularly in comparison to the 2012 document.
First, in the international affairs component of the GOP platform, both the 2012 and 2016 documents contain provisions that reiterate America’s global role in the world. In fact, the 2016 GOP platform states, “We affirm our party’s tradition of world leadership established by President Eisenhower and follow by every Republican president since.” While there are some concessions to the point of view of GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, the party position is not as isolationist as some may have initially feared. The 2016 GOP platform continues, “[U.S. world leadership] stands for enormous power – and the prudence to use it sparingly, precisely, and only in grave necessity. It stands for involvement, not intervention. It requires consultation, not permission to act. It leads from the front – and ensures all others to do their parts as well. It embraces American exceptionalism…” To a certain degree, this represents the position of George W. Bush when he responded to a question during the second presidential debate in 2000 about how the people of the world should look at the United States:
“…It really depends upon how our nation conducts itself in foreign policy. If we’re an arrogant nation, they’ll resent us. If we’re a humble nation, but strong, they’ll welcome us. Our nation stands alone right now in the world in terms of power, and that’s why we have to be humble. And yet project strength in a way that promotes freedom…if we’re an arrogant nation they’ll view us that way, but if we’re a humble nation they’ll respect us.”
Thus, to an extent, the 2016 Republican platform aims to return to pre-Iraq war position of George W. Bush who expressed support for a more humble foreign policy.
Second, the current GOP platform retains a section on Asia from the 2012 document entitled “U.S. leadership in the Asia-Pacific.” Thus, there is an assumption in Republican political circles that the U.S. will continue to be deeply engaged with the region. In fact, the 2016 platform builds on the 2012 Asia section by specifically delineating that South Korea is a treaty ally of the United States. In contrast, the 2012 GOP platform contained only two sentences on the Korean peninsula and identified Korea only as a country with which the U.S. has economic, military, and cultural ties. In the current GOP platform, there are now four sentences on human rights and the nuclear issue with respect to North Korea, including this concluding sentence: “We [the U.S.] also pledge to counter any threats from the North Korean regime.” Plus, unlike the sentiment in the section dealing with Europe, which contained language demanding fellow members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) fulfill their commitments and increase investment in their armed forces, the 2016 GOP platform does not contain similar language requiring Korea to increase “burden-sharing” because the facts are clear: Korea already contributes approximately 50 percent of the cost of stationing U.S. troops on the peninsula; Korea has a military draft; and Korea is the highest contributor to its own defense (2.6 percent of GDP) of any major European or Asian ally of the United States.
Nonetheless, the language in trade section of the 2016 GOP platform is different from past years. The 2012 platform praised past free trade agreements that facilitated the creation of nearly 10 million jobs and criticized the Obama Administration for its slowness in negotiating new trade deals. The previous platform also call for the restoration of presidential Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) and urged completion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) “to open rapidly developing Asian markets to U.S. products.” However, while the trade section in the 2016 Republican platform begins with a similar sentence on the crucial importance of international trade for the American economy, the second sentence postulates that “massive trade deficits are not.” The platform continues, “We need better negotiated trade agreements that put America first…A Republican president will insist on parity in trade…” The section concludes with the recommendation that “significant trade agreements should not be rushed or undertaken in a Lame Duck Congress.” This language could undermine bipartisan efforts to pass TPP later this year in Congress, particularly if Donald Trump is elected president. Most recently, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that “the chances are pretty slim that that we’d be looking at that [TPP] this year.”
While the 2016 Republican platform acknowledges that trade agreements with “friendly democracies” have resulted in millions of new jobs in the United States, there is now a shift towards the political goal of achieving “balance in trade.” Contained in this language is an assumption that the U.S. loses jobs with nations that exports more goods and services into the United States that we are able to sell to them. Regardless of the economic arguments against this proposition, the growing bilateral trade deficit between the United States and the South Korea could be a source of friction in the future if Donald Trump is elected president. But fortunately, U.S.-ROK trade deficit is not a result of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA). In fact, items that were covered by the agreement saw an increase in exports from the United States to South Korea every year since the implementation of the KORUS FTA.
Thus, the 2016 GOP platform has mixed results for Korea – there is stronger language on maintaining U.S. commitments to our treaty ally, South Korea, and a pledge to counter any North Korean threats but possibly putting a speed bump on the way towards advancing future trade agreements. Fortunately, Korea has a strong case to make that the KORUS-FTA is not the source of the growing bilateral trade deficit with the United States. In fact, without the agreement, the deficit would be even higher. Regardless, the party platform is not binding on Republican candidates for office but provides a window into the latest thinking of top GOP political operatives helping to elect candidates to federal office in the United States.
Phil Eskeland is Executive Director for Operations and Policy at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.
Photo from the Disney | ABC Television Group’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.