Vice President Mike Pence visited the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Secretariat in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Thursday. ASEAN, which is celebrating its 50th birthday this year, is the cornerstone of Asia’s multilateral institutions, so we can hope that President Donald Trump’s distrust of multilateralism becomes the next foreign-policy position that he reverses. Last week, Trump gave up some vociferously held positions — China is a currency manipulator, NATO is obsolete, the Export-Import Bank is unnecessary — in favor of more reality-based ones, so there’s cause for guarded optimism.
Every foreign-policy issue consequential to America’s wellbeing today requires a multilateral solution. If a border wall could halt diseases, nuclear material, terrorists, traffickers, and weather, then national security and the job of the president would be much easier. But that is not our world.
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ASEAN is a collection of 10 small (except for Indonesia), non-threatening, wildly diverse countries that decided to band together to keep the peace among themselves. At this they have succeeded. Economic growth is strong because ASEAN means that officials talk out their differences rather than fight them out.
So ASEAN is important to the United States for economic reasons — the bloc is America’s fourth-largest export goods market, responsible for over half a million jobs in the United States already. The ASEAN consumer class, hungry for U.S. products and services, is exploding, especially in countries like Vietnam.