It would be wrong and counterproductive, though understandable, for an American president to fawn over foreign autocrats, put human rights on the back burner and bolster the propaganda of our principal adversary if the president came home with a basket of economic deals, geopolitical commitments and diplomatic wins. But to come back with nothing, as President Trump did from his Asia trip, is nearly incomprehensible.

Trump’s preening is made worse by the fact that he won few concessions from anyone. White House aides boasted of hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of trade deals inked in China, which turned out to be mostly memorandums or preexisting agreements that likely won’t come to fruition any time soon. Meanwhile, China didn’t need to budge much on any of its core economic or geopolitical areas of disagreement with Washington. Trump even praised Chinese President Xi Jinping for his nation’s taking “advantage” of the United States.
“Trump teetered somewhere between a joke and a disgrace from an American perspective — and an unbridled godsend from Xi’s,” wrote Slate’s Fred Kaplan.

It is understandable that Trump can make little, if any, headway. Xi has taken the measure of the man, found him a pushover and no doubt concluded that no action is required on his part for now on trade, intellectual property theft, cyberattacks or North Korea. Throw the guy a parade and send him home. Allies, meanwhile, see him wildly bounce between pledges of unity and re-elevation of China. They see he wants bilateral deals where the United States can overpower smaller trading powers, not multilateral deals, so they make multilateral deals without him.

Trump may tout discrete commercial deals for U.S. businesses, but those should not be confused with wins on major areas of concern. Melanie Hart reminds us:

From a U.S. perspective, there are broad systemic problems in U.S.-China commercial relations, and those problems require broad solutions. Beijing is enacting nonmarket regulatory policies that privilege Chinese industries and firms at U.S. expense. Those policies include measures such as foreign investment restrictions in a wide array of sectors ranging from manufacturing to education and entertainment; unequal protection under Chinese law for Chinese versus foreign firms; special regulatory exemptions for Chinese state-owned enterprises; forced technology transfer; failure to adhere to timelines required by the World Trade Organization (WTO) to publish new laws, regulations, and measures in advance of their implementation; and intellectual property rights violations. In some industries, Beijing also continues to provide WTO-prohibited subsidies that lower production costs and give Chinese firms a price advantage in global markets.

Trump makes little progress with China, both because it has figured how to mollify him and because he has thrown away the best leverage he has — a unified economic front with democratic allies, as was possible in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It’s only when we stand shoulder to shoulder with allies that we can jointly make headway on issues of mutual economic concern.

As Daniel Drezner points out, “There is a reason every time Trump tries to flesh out his grand strategy, he fails miserably. His mixture of erratic security pledges, mercantilist economic policy and transactional values is less appetizing to the rest of the world than he realizes.”

And when Trump gives China the opening to play benevolent internationalist, leader on climate change and undisturbed autocrat (nary a mention of human rights on this trip), Trump turns the United States into second fiddle in the region. (Bloomberg Politics noted, “At the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam, Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping again laid out competing visions for globalization. While Trump said he wouldn’t enter large trade agreements ‘that tie our hands,’ Xi painted a picture of a global order that would bring collective benefits.”)

Trump thinks he needs no one else at the State Department. (“I’m the only one that matters, because when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be.”) He could actually use someone to explain why Korean unification is important, why he should not link trade and North Korea (he winds up with no progress on either), why it is in our interest to raise human rights and why he’s making the United States weaker by, to borrow a phrase, putting daylight between the United States and our democratic allies. Unfortunately, Trump doesn’t have such a person to tell him this, or if he does, he doesn’t listen or can’t remember the advice he is getting.