In 2009, Karl Rove, echoing many other critics during then-President Barack Obama’s administration, called his first two trips around the world an “Apology Tour.” This was later parroted in 2012 by GOP Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney and it apparently came “full circle” in 2016 with Obama’s visit to Cuba. But Obama’s reason for going to Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East was to distance himself for his predecessor but also ensure that America would not be “dismissive, even derisive,” to allies and partners again.
Keep that in mind when Secretary of Defense James Mattis travels to South Korea and Japan next week. The trip’s goal is to “underscore the commitment of the United States to our enduring alliances with Japan and the Republic of Korea, and further strengthen U.S.-Japan-Republic of Korea security cooperation” (emphasis mine). Read that line as “apologize for Trump’s statements during the campaign.”
Indeed, while running for president, Donald Trump suggested that Japan and South Korea should develop nuclear weapons so they could defend themselves and their interests in Asia. This was not received well in Seoul and Tokyo. After all, both capitals rely on friends in Washington to remain staunch allies and security partners against any potential regional threats, especially from North Korea and China.
Trump’s words certainly have had serious implications. Conservatives in South Korea, for example, took Trump’s statement both seriously and literally and now advocate for having their own nuclear option. Japan, meanwhile, already has 11 tons of plutonium and a desire to continue reprocessing. If there is no staunch U.S. commitment to these countries, and the situation in the region worsens, it is hard to see why calls for nuclear capabilities would not rise. That would make an already tense region much more fraught with danger.
It is therefore in America’s national security interest — and in the interest of global order — to halt nuclear proliferation and reassure our allies that America has their back. That is why Mattis will travel to Seoul and Japan: to effectively apologize for Trump’s campaign rhetoric and “America First” foreign policy, letting them know a vital Cabinet member still cares about those relationships. That will be a much harder job now that Trump de facto killed America’s involvement in the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
It appears to be Mattis’ job in the first week of the Trump presidency to contact and reassure shaken allies like the United Kingdom, Canada, and NATO’s Secretary General based on their rightful perception of a presidency hostile to their security interests. Mattis will soon see his Canadian and European colleagues in meetings over the next month, but a trip to Asia was yet on the docket. He knows how important U.S. relationships with those two countries are, though, and certainly asked for this special trip to go see them.
Obama’s critics may have been too harsh on him when he offered a different vision for America during his time in office. In Asia next week, Mattis is clearly not apologizing for America, but for the president he serves in hope of undoing the damage already caused by Trump’s comments. It is now up to Mattis to salvage America’s key relationships in Asia. Let’s hope Seoul and Tokyo accept his apology.
Alex Ward is an associate director in the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.