The key takeaway from President Trump’s trip to Asia over the weekend is that he has restarted negotiations with both North Korea and China based on personal meetings with those nations’ leaders. But to rightly understand his moves, we must see them in the context of a failed pre-Trump status quo rather than personal preening on a global stage.
Trump’s critics have long warned that his clear belief in his dealmaking abilities could have dangerous consequences. They view Trump as armed with little more than a sense of his own superiority and fear that leaders who understand his narcissism could easily seduce him into thinking that he negotiated a deal of the century while he instead gave away the store.
His fans, not surprisingly, take a different view. Most don’t subscribe to the “Trump as Superman” fantasy; instead, they recognize that experts have been in charge of U.S. foreign policy for decades. And, they argue, we have little to show for it: North Korea has nuclear weapons, and China has emerged as a dangerous geopolitical foe. In their view, Trump’s dramatic breaks with the past could be the only chance the United States has to avert dangerous conflicts with one or both nations. Better to take a chance on him, they reason, than hope more of the same will yield different results.
This weekend’s decisions do not, so far, decide which side is right. That’s because little, if anything, of long-term substance was decided. Regarding China, Trump essentially gave China some relief from the U.S. campaign against Huawei while gaining additional purchases for its beleaguered farm sector. Paradoxically, Trump likely gave himself more bargaining room by relieving some of the economic pain Americans feel. But he can easily revoke either concession if further trade negotiations stall.
North Korea is not much different. Trump’s decision to symbolically “visit” the totalitarian country by crossing the demilitarized-zone boundary might give Kim Jong Un some degree of legitimacy on the global stage. But that added boost is tiny compared with what has already transpired. Given that no one wants to actually force regime change in Pyongyang, Trump’s act does nothing that changes the status quo. And on the denuclearization talks themselves, all the hour-long meeting gives rise to is preliminary talks to see if further negotiations might be fruitful. Pretty thin gruel for such a large global headline.
That’s not to say this weekend’s events aren’t potentially consequential. The trade conflict with China is slowing growth worldwide, as the ripple effects of a slowing Chinese economy expand to other countries. The confrontation with North Korea could have serious consequences if failure to reach an agreement leads to further provocative tests by Pyongyang. In each case, Trump’s decision to turn latent conflicts into open ones has dramatically increased the odds of a painful outcome for the United States and its allies.
But that decision itself is probably long overdue. Continuing the old ways would have surely led to more North Korean tests, as sanctions unsupported by a credible military threat clearly did not deter Pyongyang. And had Trump not imposed tariffs on China, its economy would likely be humming along, providing further fuel for the Chinese to build their military and extend their global influence. The alternative to Trump’s risky behavior would not be good times; it would be the delay of an inevitable conflict in the future, when the United States would probably have less leverage.
If Trump’s critics are right — that Trump wants headlines more than outcomes — then he will likely defuse these conflicts with bad deals that do little or nothing to address the root problems. That would certainly be a poor result, but it is hard to see how this would be worse than if Trump lost the election to Hillary Clinton.
Had she won, it’s difficult to see how China’s growth into a global, antidemocratic power could have been slowed. Patient assembling of allies who don’t really want to confront China would likely have produced small measures that did little to change China’s course. The status quo on North Korea would also likely have been maintained with undesirable outcomes. No war plus no talks would equal no change. Clinton was the status quo candidate, and if the status quo wasn’t good for the United States, then taking some risks to get a better outcome is not an irrational choice.
We don’t know how Trump’s latest maneuvers will fare. The only thing we do know is that the byproduct of economic globalization is and will continue to be the flowing of hard power from the Western allies to non-Western countries, democratic and authoritarian alike. Trump’s moves, then, should be seen for what they are: merely the opening gambits in a game of power and influence that will long outlast his presidency.