Last week, President Trump departed for the Group of 20 summit by airing a flurry of grievances, ranging from the U.S.-Japan security treaty to Chinese trading practices to Europe being Europe. Clearly, the administration had a lot on its foreign policy to-do list.
As he returned home, Trump claimed a successful trip. He had one-on-one meetings with many of the G-20 leaders. Jonathan Lemire and Zeke Miller of the Associated Press noted that this appeared to be Trump’s principal accomplishment at Osaka: “After meeting with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, Turkey’s Recep Tayyep Erdogan and China’s Xi Jinping, all of whom have authoritarian tendencies, the president invoked the imperative of strong relationships nine times in a closing news conference at the G-20. ‘I really have a good relationship with everybody,’ he said.”
Trump upped the ante on personal relationships on his next stop. Before flying to Seoul, he tweeted that he’d be visiting the demilitarized zone (DMZ) and asked his North Korean pen pal, Kim Jong Un, to meet him there. Kim showed up, Trump became the first U.S. president to set foot in North Korea, and they talked for about an hour.
That moment clearly had an impact on some of the TV folk:
Trump’s reputable foreign policy defenders often like to say that observers should distinguish between Trump’s words and U.S. foreign policy actions, with the latter counting a lot more. That’s a bit disingenuous — words count in foreign policy! — but in this case the advice is sound. In terms of concrete deliverables, what, exactly, did Trump accomplish on this trip?
For one of the first times in this administration, Ivanka Trump can provide some useful service to us commentators. She appeared to be all over the G-20 meetings, annoying the heck out of some officials and even offering an official readout of one of her father’s meetings:
This is Ivanka’s utility. As a synecdoche for Trump’s vapid foreign policy, Ivanka’s statement is perfect. Because when you look at action items, you realize just how little Trump achieved on this trip.
On China, the president agreed to a temporary truce: No new tariffs while negotiations resume. He also agreed to lift the ban on U.S. companies selling to Huawei. In return, he tweeted that China “will begin purchasing large amounts of agricultural product from our great Farmers.” Given the bipartisan concerns expressed about Huawei’s potential role in 5G networks, this was a surprising concession, albeit one that China demanded before the bilateral meeting, however.
The good news is that Trump did not make the trade war worse. What was actually agreed to, however, did not seem like a big win for the United States.
As for North Korea, both sides agreed to the resumption of working group-level meetings. This is good! But it is also worth remembering that despite Trump’s three meetings with Kim, not much has been accomplished in the way of denuclearization. NBC’s Andrea Mitchell observed that North Korea has not even met the first condition of the Singapore summit declaration, disclosing a weapons inventory to provide a baseline for denuclearization talks. Kim is also still testing ballistic missiles.
The Atlantic’s Uri Friedman argues that Trump’s meetings with Kim are still an important accomplishment: “The president has shattered the American taboo of meeting with the head of the Kim regime and established a top-level channel of communication between decades-old enemies.” This is true, but even Friedman acknowledges a few paragraphs later that “it has yet to yield any real progress on the core issue of North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program, including long-range missiles that are potentially capable of delivering nuclear warheads to the United States.”
As measured by actions rather than words, the principal accomplishment of the DMZ meeting was to reset matters to where they were after the Singapore summit and before the Hanoi summit. The test will be whether the working-group meetings make any progress or flame out as they did after Singapore. Because, as measured by DPRK actions, Trump has been far less successful than his predecessors, none of whom dignified Kim Jong Un with a visit. CNN’s Samantha Vinograd notes that by going to the DMZ, Trump has signaled his comfort with the status quo. This puts far less pressure on Kim to make tangible concessions.
It is also worth noting that as Trump continues to promise great deals without actually completing any, other actors in world politics are not standing still. In the same week, European Union negotiators inked trade deals with Vietnam and Mercosur. Even as the United States prosecutes trade wars against China, India and the European Union, other countries are signing trade deals or lowering tariffs in ways that put U.S. producers at a disadvantage.
But hey, Trump can say that Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and Mohammed bin Salman are his friends. That’s something, right?