As President Trump ends his Asia trip, he might sum up the 12-day journey with a revision of the remark attributed to Julius Caesar: Veni, vidi, blandivi. I came, I saw, I flattered.
Trump’s trip was closer to a pilgrimage than a projection of power. The president rarely explained details of U.S. policy. Instead, he mostly asked other leaders for help, lauded their virtues and embraced their worldviews.
Along the adulation tour, Trump spoke of his “really extraordinary” relationship with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe; his “incredibly warm” feeling for Chinese President Xi Jinping, whom he called “a very special man”; his “great relationship” with the “very successful” Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte; and his empathy for Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose nation is “an asset to our country, not a liability.”
And the president praised himself at nearly every stop, telling reporters on the way home that the trip had been “tremendously successful” with “incredible” achievements.
Trump’s trip may indeed prove to be historic, but probably not in the way he intends. It may signal a U.S. accommodation to rising Chinese power, plus a desire to mend fences with a belligerent Russia — with few evident security gains for the United States. If the 1945 Yalta summit marked U.S. acceptance of the Soviet Union’s hegemony in Eastern Europe, this trip seemed to validate China’s arrival as a Pacific power. As Xi put it to Trump, “The Pacific Ocean is big enough to accommodate both China and the United States.”
Trump voiced a clear desire for accommodation with an aggressive Russia, too. Much was made of his regurgitation of Putin’s denial that he had conducted a covert action against America during last year’s presidential campaign. “President Putin really feels — and he feels strongly — that he did not meddle in our election.”
Remarked one former senior CIA official: “When the Art of the Deal meets the KGB, the KGB wins.”
But far more important than Trump’s credulous response to Putin was his eagerness for Moscow’s help in bolstering the United States’ global position. Trump has noisily drawn a red line on North Korea, for example, but he evidently needs Russia’s help, in addition to China’s, to deliver without going to war. To get Moscow’s help on North Korea, and Syria, too, Trump seems willing to give Putin a pass.
Here’s how Trump put it during a news conference in Hanoi, which may have been the most important statement of the trip: “People don’t realize Russia has been very, very heavily sanctioned,” Trump said. “It’s now time to get back to healing a world that is shattered and broken. . . . And I feel that having Russia in a friendly posture, as opposed to always fighting with them, is an asset to the world.”
Trump’s ingratiating comments come at a time of American strategic disorientation. “We’re adrift,” said one prominent congressional Republican staffer, expressing a view that’s increasingly heard from nonpartisan analysts at the Pentagon, think tanks and universities. At a time when Russia, China and Iran are all rapidly advancing their military capabilities, the Trump administration has declaratory policies of military strength — but hasn’t yet made the necessary decisions about how it intends to actually combat these potential adversaries.
A blistering summary of the administration’s overdue obligation to make strategic decisions to deter Russia and China, as opposed to glad-handing them, came in a little-noted Oct. 27 letter from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Stricken with cancer, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee holds nothing back these days.
“We now confront the most complex security environment in 70 years,” McCain wrote. “Misplaced priorities and acquisition failures have left us without critical defense capabilities to counter increasingly advanced near-peer competitors. . . . We no longer enjoy the wide margins of power we once had over competitors and adversaries. We cannot do everything we want everywhere. We must choose. We must prioritize.”
McCain suggested what many analysts have been saying quietly for months. The most worrying thing about Trump isn’t his impulsive military threats (though there’s reason to be concerned there, too). The deeper fear is that in national security, this administration is an empty suit. It doesn’t make decisions. It doesn’t set priorities.
Trump is a vain man who flatters others so that he will be stroked himself. If there’s a strategic concept underlying his approach, it may be realism married to acquiescence. The Asia trip left me feeling that we’re watching an American retreat, accompanied by a shiny brass band.
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