As President Trump wraps up his first lengthy Pacific Rim trip, it is worth taking stock of his achievements in foreign policy. Indeed, it could be argued that this trip is an excellent microcosm of his administration’s overarching foreign policy strategy.
And it’s not all bad! It’s just mostly bad.
Trump’s revival of the Quad (Australia, India, Japan, and the United States) as a way to hedge against China’s ambitions in the region was pretty solid. So was the revival of the term “Indo-Pacific” to bring India into the Pacific Rim equation. CNAS’ Patrick Cronin offers measured praise for Trump’s performance in the Diplomat:
Trump has proven to be more willing to accept risk than his predecessors — as seen in strong shows of force and occasionally heated words. Yet as his speech to the National Assembly in Seoul revealed, he is unified with Moon and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on using maximum pressure to guide North Korea back to serious dialogue. While the White House remains committed to a denuclearized Korean peninsula, Trump set a much lower bar for North Korea to return to the bargaining table. Hopefully with far more serious effort from China and Russia, North Korea will eventually find diplomacy preferable to ever-growing tension. …
In sum, the heart of the Trump administration’s policy is to preserve American power and invest in those capabilities that will allow the United States to retain strategic influence across the vast and dynamic Indo-Pacific region. The president’s first trip to Asia afforded an excellent opportunity to outline this policy. In the coming months and years, the Trump administration will embroider on this basic framework with more specific policies. Notwithstanding a strong preference for bilateral rather than multilateral trade, there is far more continuity than change in America’s posture in Asia. And that should be a welcome development.
The New Republic’s Jeet Heer also praises Trump and criticizes those in the media who jumped all over silly “nontroversies” like the koi pond incident or the awkward ASEAN handshake. Heer notes that Trump gave a relatively measured speech in Seoul about the prospects of negotiating with Seoul, a sharp contrast from his “fire and fury” rhetoric of the summer. Heer warns:
This quickness to pile on the president, at the expense of policy analysis, illustrates a growing problem on the left. Liberals and their media allies are becoming knee-jerk anti-Trumpists, always on the lookout for the president’s next embarrassing, meme-able gaffe — and sometimes pouncing without getting their facts straight.
Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me "old," when I would NEVER call him "short and fat?" Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend – and maybe someday that will happen!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 12, 2017
Like Trump’s other long foreign policy trips, this one ended with more controversy than it started with. And a look at the way Trump thinks about foreign policy helps explain why. This exercise also highlights the worsening problems with his emergent grand strategy.
It would be fair to say that Trump’s views on security, foreign economic policy and American ideals are coming into focus. On security, Trump is relatively mainstream. After some hemming and hawing he has largely said the right things with respect to key allies. He would like these countries to pony up more for the common defense, but he is not going to abandon a U.S, ally. If anything, the concern has been his bellicose rhetoric toward states such as North Korea and Iran.
The problem is that Trump believes that he and he alone represents American interests abroad. He told Fox News Channel’ Laura Ingraham not to worry about State Department manpower shortages: “Let me tell you, the one that matters is me. I’m the only one that matters, because when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be. You’ve seen that, you’ve seen it strongly.” As the decapitation of the State Department continues apace, Trump soon may well be the only spokesperson for American foreign policy. But he has no strategy, just impulses.
Trump’s personalization of foreign policy makes credible commitment next to impossible. If Trump is the only spokesperson, then his idiotic tweets matter, no matter how much his chief of staff, John Kelly, pretends they don’t. Trump wants to rally all of Asia around him to confront North Korea to coax Pyongyang into negotiations. It is extremely difficult to make that sale, however, if the sole person who matters keeps speaking erratically on the subject (or any subject). It also makes it next to impossible for North Korea to entertain negotiating with Trump.
Another way the United States can attract allies is through foreign economic policy — but here, Trump’s message is badly off-key. The Trump administration keeps rejecting multilateral initiatives and insisting on bilateral trade deals. The problem is, as BuzzFeed’s John Hudson reports, that no one in the Pacific Rim is interested:
President Donald Trump’s sweeping plan to restore American primacy by replacing “unfair” multilateral trade agreements with a series of bilateral deals is meeting a grim reality: foreign trading partners aren’t taking the bait.
From Japan to South Korea to China to Vietnam, the president extended his offer to partner with the United States on a “fair and equal basis” outside of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the multi-nation accord that Trump withdrew from on his first full day in office.
“I will make bilateral trade agreements with any Indo-Pacific nation that wants to be our partner and that will abide by the principles of fair and reciprocal trade,” Trump told a gathering of Asia-Pacific powers in Vietnam on Friday.
But in every country Trump visited, none of the leaders entered trade negotiations or offered significant concessions to the former real estate magnate and Art of the Deal author.
And why should they be interested? Whether it’s the New York Times’s Mark Landler or the Financial Times’s Shawn Donnan, the reporting is the same: Other countries are proceeding with their own trade deals and bypassing the United States. Donnan notes:
From Asia to Europe and Latin America other countries are striking trade deals and launching negotiations at an accelerating pace. Japan, Canada, Mexico and eight other countries that remained in the Trans-Pacific Partnership after Mr Trump pulled the US out of the trade pact are expected to announce at Apec that they will be moving ahead with the deal.
A few days later in the Philippines the leaders of 16 countries — including China, India, Japan and South Korea — are expected to declare progress towards a deal that, if successful, would see tariffs fall across a quarter of the global economy. The vehicle for that is the Beijing-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, once mocked by US officials as a clumsy effort to catch up with Washington’s own plans to write rules for the region.
Even though he bills himself as the master of the deal, Mr Trump is expected to leave Asia, a region that carries the future hopes of many US companies, without delivering any substantial new trade initiatives. Japan continues to resist US approaches to begin bilateral talks. Other TPP members with whom Washington is eager to strike bilateral pacts, such as Vietnam, seem equally unenthusiastic.
Nor can Trump offer any kind of soft power as a way to advance U.S. interests in the region. Because Trump thinks of himself as the only person who matters on foreign policy, he equates good personal relationships with foreign leaders as good foreign policy. This is one reason Trump goes out of his way to be nice to Russia’s Vladimir Putin. It’s also why other countries are smart enough to give him the red-carpet treatment:
Trump pleased with the opulent welcome treatment he's been given on this trip. "It was a red carpet like nobody, I think, has probably ever seen."
— Ali Vitali (@alivitali) November 13, 2017
The idea that pomp and circumstance actually signal all that much is a pretty silly notion, however. Slate’s Fred Kaplan is correct when he observes:
Trump is not the first president who has come to office thinking that strong foreign policies are built on cordial relations with foreign leaders, but he is one of the few who still seem wedded to the notion after a few trips around the block. “Great chemistry” can play a role in promoting good policies, but the chemistry grows out of — and amounts to nothing without — mutual interests or values.
It is hard to find mutual interests and values between the Trump administration and East Asian countries. Pacific Rim countries are understandably fearful of Trump’s erratic security pledges. There is no mutual economic interest with Trump’s “America First” approach. And when it comes to promoting American values, Trump seems incapable of doing it. He will eschew talk of human rights for talk about sovereignty every day of the week and twice on Sundays. No wonder the president is ridiculously unpopular across the region and has abstained from any interaction with Asian publics.
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.
The contrast with China’s Xi Jinping is startling. Xi has been saying one thing and doing something else for most of 2017, and pretty much getting away with it. This is because, compared to Trump’s team, Xi’s administration knows how to do foreign policy in Asia. As Donnan observed in a follow-up report:
“I think everyone was polite to [Trump] and they want to make him think that they are all chummy and willing to do things with him. But I have to think in some ways they are laughing behind his back, and certainly the Chinese are,” one US business lobbyist told the Financial Times on Sunday. “I don’t think any of them have any intention of getting into a deal with him, certainly not on the terms that he wants.”
As president, Trump wants to be the only voice that matters. But no country can trust him to credibly commit to anything, and few countries find his economics or his values all that appetizing.
As always, the primary success of Trump’s overseas trip is that he did not start World War III. Beyond that, anyone who is describing his Pacific Rim trip as a success is relying on the soft bigotry of low expectations.