US President Donald Trump walks from the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House after speaking about the Iran nuclear deal on October 13, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Kevin Lamarque

Former US ambassador to China J. Stapleton Roy’s toughest criticism of President Donald Trump is in the area of policy formulation.

Roy sees a vacuum in current US policy towards East Asia. He traces it to Trump’s penchant for making highly personal decisions on regional issues that ignore a broader US policy framework – one carefully crafted by experienced diplomats. He also chides the White House’s failure to fill critical policy posts that would help define and implement US policy in the region.

Asked to capsulize Trump’s stance towards Asia, Roy tells Asia Times: “I don’t think we can talk about the policy of the Trump administration until they fill the policy positions.”

He notes that Trump has been quoted as saying that policy positions are irrelevant, “that he is the decider and that he is the only person that counts.”

This doesn’t sit well with Roy. “I would recommend that the President read the book ‘Presidential Power’ by Richard Neustadt that was written about 50 years ago,” he says. While “the President is clearly the chief decider,” Roy cautions that Trump is limited in what he can implement.

“It may require actions by Congress. It may require actions by other countries,” added Roy, who serves as director of the Kissinger Institute for Chinese-US Studies.

US can’t act alone

The career diplomat, who specialized in Soviet affairs during the Cold War, noted that the US simply can’t act alone on the international stage.

“One needs a policy framework which takes into account the history of how we got to where we are and that can formulate a coherent concept of how to advance US interests in the period ahead,” Roy says. “That cannot be done by the President. It cannot be done by an inexperienced Secretary of State.”

Roy says input is required from what he calls the “policy level.” Understanding and expertise are needed, he says, rather than simply dealing with individual issues in isolation from a broader strategic framework, as Trump is doing.

Empty policy apparatus

The White House’s failure to fill key positions is adding to the confusion, according to Roy. He says many candidates are eminently qualified civil servants with superb expertise in East Asia, but they cannot act until they have been hired and confirmed in their jobs.

“Until those positions are filled, we don’t know who’ll be making the recommendations and policy studies that can ultimately result in a coherent and sensible approach to the foreign policy issues that the US faces,” Roy points out.

The career diplomat says action on filling such policy posts is “way overdue” and that every other presidential administration in the post-war period has acted much more rapidly on the issue than the Trump administration has.

Doug Tsuruoka is Editor-at-Large of Asia Times

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