Less than two weeks ago there was a bit of news—little reported in the United States, but more on that later—that Malaysia had cut off all imports from North Korea. In the scheme of global trade, the numbers seem small. Malaysia’s annual imports may total no more than about $15 million, but those millions in cash are the lifeblood of a pariah nation that can barely pay its electric bill, let alone finance even the barest-bones infrastructure project to pave roads.
Malaysia’s decision to cut economic ties with Kim Jong-un shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, the North Korean dictator had the poor social grace to have his half-brother assassinated in the Kuala Lumpur international airport. But that isn’t the only reason. Give some credit to savvy foreign policy gamesmanship by President Trump and his administration.
Recall that about a month ago, Malaysia’s prime minister, Najib Razak, visited the United States and the White House. To the media, the visit was “controversial” and a “terrible idea.” So-called “foreign policy experts” called the meeting a setback for the rule of law. The media’s favorite term to describe the prime minister was “embattled,” due to a financial scandal in which he is allegedly embroiled, although the Malaysian justice system has yet to find any evidence to charge him with a crime.
One wonders where the media watchdogs were when President Barack Obama climbed into bed with the Castro regime in Cuba, or when he endorsed the Muslim Brotherhood during the Arab Spring uprisings, which led to the downfall of one of America’s stronger allies in the region. In fact, Obama continued to endorse the Muslim Brotherhood, an entity that was spreading its particular brand of religious zealotry and violence to countries like Malaysia, where Prime Minister Razak has been battling them.
Only President Trump and his foreign policy advisers seemed to understand the importance of working with an influential, duly elected regional leader on a broader agenda important strategically to both the United States and Malaysia, and other allies in the region.
The Trump Administration had two goals with Malaysia: first, solidify a friendship that had been weakened by Obama Administration failures and then reinforce the critical role Malaysia can play in the region as a key strategic partner of the United States.
In seeking to overcome the mismanagement of our relations during the Obama years, the Trump Administration also wanted to prevent a turn toward China as Malaysia can play a vital role in the Asia Pacific region on trade, counter-terrorism and the in our relationship with China.
At the same that President Trump was meeting with Malaysia, the United States was also working with China on their response to an increasingly troublesome and aggressive North Korea. In the end, the Trump Administration’s efforts paid off on several fronts.
First, Prime Minister Razak announced his country’s intention to purchase upwards of $20 billion in jets from Boeing over the next decade, as well as investing an additional $3-4 billion on top of the $7 billion Malaysia already annually spends in the United States. Second, President Trump and Razak committed to work on a trade deal with Malaysia that would be an economic boon to both nations. Third, we are now seeing the additional steps Malaysia is taking in support of regional security, cutting off its own trade, and assisting the Trump Administration in encouraging China to step in line with other players to do the same.
For his part, Razak came to Washington hoping to strengthen Malaysia’s economic and strategic partnership with the United States and Malaysia, and left having achieved both. It’s not an accident that at the same time as Malaysia is stepping up, China announced that it was cutting off banking ties with North Korea, perhaps the most serious blow to Kim Jong-un’s efforts to rally support against the United States and broader global efforts to contain him.
Trump’s Malaysia gambit is an excellent example of the kind of realpolitik approach to foreign policy that America has desperately needed for more than a decade. Rather than coddling tin-pot dictators and terrorists at the White House, we have an administration that is willing to work with leaders who are willing to work with the United States, reach mutually beneficial agreements, and along the way strengthen U.S. national and economic security both abroad and at home.
Some like to toss around the term “nationalism” as though it were a pejorative, but it’s clear that for many Americans, it’s an approach worth defending if not wholeheartedly supporting.
We’ve seen what happens when we have a president unwilling to defend and uphold our nation’s interests at home and abroad. It will take years for us to recover, but the Trump White House is digging in and rebuilding that trust and that national interest one ally at a time and whether the media elite and its friends like it or not.