HANOI — On his third day in office, President Trump signed an executive memorandum withdrawing the United States from a 12-nation Asia-Pacific trade accord that had been painstakingly negotiated over a decade by two of his White House predecessors.
“Everyone knows what that means, right?” Trump asked rhetorically in the Oval Office. It meant, he said, that the country would start winning again in the face of unchecked globalization that had harmed ordinary Americans.
But on the 295th day of his presidency — during a trip to the region where the trade pact was most vital — a competing narrative emerged. Trump’s “America first” slogan has, in many ways, begun to translate into something more akin to “America alone.”
As the president’s motorcade wove up a mountain road Saturday to a regional summit in the Vietnamese city of Danang, news broke that the 11 nations that had once looked to U.S. leadership to seal the deal on the Trans-Pacific Partnership had moved on without the United States and announced a tentative agreement among themselves.
It marked a stunning turnabout that foreign-policy analysts warned could further erode U.S. standing at a time when China is embarked on a major economic expansion and further undermine global confidence in the United States’ ability to organize the world around its own liberal values.
For Trump, the Asia trip has cast into sharp relief the high-stakes bet he placed that turning the United States away from multilateralism will make the nation more prosperous and safer.
“The world has many places, many dreams and many roads. But in all of the world, there is no place like home,” Trump told business leaders in Danang, cribbing the “Wizard of Oz” line in which Dorothy tries to wake from a dream about a misadventure in a frightening world.
“For the glory of God, protect your home, defend your home,” Trump said, ending a speech meant to assure the region of U.S. staying power on a protectionist note of the sort that defined his campaign.
It is not just on trade that Trump has sought to stake out positions that have isolated the United States from the rest of the world. His plans to withdraw from the Paris climate accord at the earliest opportunity in 2020 could mean that the United States is the only country in the world not committed to it, since Syria announced its intention to join last week.
And Trump’s decision to decertify the Iran nuclear deal last month put him at odds not just with China and Russia, but also with U.S. treaty allies Britain, Germany and France.
Another ally, Japan, where Trump made a state visit this week, is among the signatories of the new TPP, as are Australia, New Zealand, and U.S. neighbors Canada and Mexico. Vietnam, where Trump is making a state visit in Hanoi on Sunday, is projected to be the biggest beneficiary of the trade pact in terms of net impact on its gross domestic product.
White House aides rejected suggestions that the United States was being left behind, leaving a void that others, including China, are rushing to fill. They emphasized that Trump’s five-nation, 12-day Asia trip — including his participation at regional summits in Vietnam and the Philippines before returning to Washington — was designed to reaffirm U.S. commitment.
In a speech to the South Korean legislature, Trump issued a rallying cry for other countries to join the U.S.-led effort to tighten economic and diplomatic pressure on North Korea over its nuclear weapons program. And in his address at the Asia Pacific Economic Forum in Danang, Trump sketched out a vision for an integrated “Indo-Pacific” that includes half the world’s population stretching from India to Oceania to Northeast and Southeast Asia.
Trump also insisted that, despite tough talk about other countries, he gets along well with virtually all the world leaders he has met — including China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, as well as the heads of liberal democracies such as Germany’s Angela Merkel, France’s Emmanuel Macron and Canada’s Justin Trudeau.
“China likes me. And I get along with them; I get along with others, too,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One while flying from Danang to Hanoi. “I get along very well with Angela. You people don’t write that.”
He said an incident in which he appeared to snub her during a photo op at the White House in March was misinterpreted by the media, asserting that he had not heard photographers asking him to shake her hand.
Trump emphasized that he is working hard to improve U.S. relations with authoritarian regimes in China and Russia to win greater cooperation on the threats in North Korea and Syria. He faulted former president Barack Obama and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton for lacking the right “chemistry” to have a productive relationship with Putin.
“I always said I think one of my strong suits is going to be foreign affairs, and we’re actually getting very good marks,” Trump said. “There’s nobody that I can think of that I don’t have a very good relationship with.”
But other signs from the president’s swing through the region reflected a shift in the way the United States promotes itself abroad — and in how the country is viewed and treated by others.
In Japan and Korea, Trump emphasized that his foreign policy is aimed at achieving “peace through strength” — a phrase popularized by President Ronald Reagan that Trump used during his campaign.
The optics of the first half of his trip were heavy on military power. The president toured Pearl Harbor, spoke to hundreds of U.S. and Japanese troops at Yokota Air Base and attempted to make a surprise visit to the Korean demilitarized zone before bad weather grounded the Marine One helicopter.
Less clear is what else Trump is offering the region. Obama’s Asia strategy relied on a three-prong approach of defense, economics and values diplomacy. In 2011, Obama took a lengthy trip to Hawaii, Australia and Indonesia, unveiling plans for the United States to take the lead on TPP negotiations, base Marines in Australia and offer presidential-level support of Burma’s fitful transition from military rule to democracy.
On foreign trips, Obama tried to use his charisma to promote American “soft power” to persuade foreign nations to move closer to the United States through means other than military might or trade. Obama conducted town-hall-style events with young people and delivered speeches at universities.
Trump, by contrast, has refrained from mingling with the general public. Over the past week, he has golfed with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, spoken to troops at military bases and joined Xi on a private tour of the Forbidden City in Beijing, where he and first lady Melania Trump were treated to Peking opera performances of scenes from “The Monkey King” and “The Drunken Beauty.”
But Trump has not faced the public — and barely answered to the American press corps. Although Trump participated in a formal news conference with Abe, he and Xi did not field questions during a “joint statement” before reporters. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the Chinese had insisted on no questions — even though the Obama White House persuaded Xi to answer a question from an American journalist in 2014.
On Saturday, the White House fielded more complaints about press access when it did not allow members of the traveling press pool to cover Trump’s participation in the summit meetings in Danang.
Trump visited the press corps on the presidential plane to Hanoi in part because he empathized with their concerns, Sanders said. Yet if the White House blamed its hosts for the news blackout, it also appeared to reflect an acknowledgment from other nations that the United States was led by a president who has not been a public champion of the independent press corps. Trump has railed against “fake news” and suggested limiting the reach of news outlets over unflattering coverage.
Trump also has spent time during the trip excusing predatory economic behavior of China and other countries and blaming past U.S. administrations for allowing the “unfair” trade imbalances he railed against during the campaign.
Although Trump’s former White House chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, was forced out of the West Wing in August, his visceral dislike of “globalists” and multilateralism has continued to permeate Trump’s administration and the president’s own thinking.
Not long after Trump arrived in Asia, Bannon warned back home about the dangers of a rising China, which he called “a hegemonic power.”
“We have an enemy of incalculable power, and they’re not a strategic partner,” he said in an interview on a Breitbart radio show. “They are an enemy, and we have to understand that.”
Trump surprised onlookers by lavishing praise on Xi during their two-day summit. “I don’t blame China,” Trump said, adding that he gives Chinese leaders “a lot of credit” for taking advantage of the United States.
Such behavior would end now that he is president, Trump said in a speech to a conference hall of business executives at the summit in Danang. But the president offered scant details of how he intends to enforce such changes and maintain U.S. primacy across the globe.
Beijing has swept through the Asia-Pacific and beyond promoting a “belt and road” initiative whose centerpiece is widespread economic investment abroad.
As Trump’s motorcade was leaving the Danang convention center, another motorcade rolled in, with Chinese license plates. Xi had arrived — to deliver the keynote address.