Reviews of U.S. President Donald Trump’s five-country trip to Asia were glowing — at least if the reviewer was the president himself. Speaking to media on the flight home, Trump crowed, “We made a lot of progress just in terms of relationship,” adding, “China has been excellent. Japan and South Korea have been excellent.” He concluded that “it was red carpet like nobody, I think, has probably every received. And that really is a sign of respect, perhaps for me a little bit, but really for our country.”
More objective observers note the president’s susceptibility to flattery, the cozying up to authoritarian leaders and his refusal to trouble those relationships with any mention of human rights, and the absence of any reference to U.S. leadership during the tour. Despite the adoption and use of a (supposedly) new framework for the region — the “Indo-Pacific” — there is little sign of a strategy that guides its use.
The first half of the tour went well. Trump had good meetings in Japan and sent all the right signals about commitment of the United States to the alliance, his relationship with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and issues of concern to Japan such as the fate of the Japanese kidnapped by North Korea. While calling for a more balanced trade relationship between our two countries, the president did not push the rumored demand for a bilateral trade agreement or warn of unilateral sanctions. When Trump left, officials in both countries could believe that the two countries were closely aligned and marching in sync (on most issues).
At his second stop, Trump gave a speech that any of his predecessors could have delivered, warning Pyongyang of the dangers and sheer wrongheadedness of its policies without descending into gratuitous insults or reckless provocations. South Korean officials were as relieved as their Japanese counterparts when the president left, reassured that their alliance was also on solid ground.
In Beijing, the picture was muddied. The president was treated to a “state-plus visit,” a diplomatic curiosity that was unprecedented, albeit meaningless. Charmed by his host, Trump announced that he had “an incredibly warm” feeling for Chinese President Xi Jinping, “a very special man.” While there was no need for the president to publicly excoriate China for its predatory behavior on economic issues, giving Beijing a free pass and criticizing former presidents for allowing such acts went too far. Trump’s logic seems to be that states are free to do what they can get away with, an attitude that makes a mockery of the rules-based system that has been a staple of U.S. foreign policy in the postwar era — and which Japan rightly champions to this day.
Trump may have moderated his behavior in China to be a good guest, but that had two pernicious effects. First, it made his previous complaints about Chinese actions sound empty and made him look like a paper tiger, ready to criticize only from a distance. Second, he appeared to acquiesce to and accept China’s policies, such as muzzling the press (by refusing to take questions during appearances) and downplaying its appalling human rights practices.
His readiness to accommodate autocrats was evident in subsequent stops, when he accepted President Vladimir Putin’s assurances that Russia had not meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election — disregarding the conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies — and when he cozied up to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, with whom Trump claims to have a “great relationship,” a status achieved by ignoring the human rights catastrophe that is Duterte’s war on drugs.
At multilateral meetings in Hanoi and Manila, the Trump vision for U.S. foreign policy was most evident and most alarming. In the name of “America First,” Trump continues to reject multilateralism, preferring to repeat the message of sovereign states interacting bilaterally to advance free and fair trade. This betrays a misunderstanding of how modern economies work, and while it damages U.S. interests it also threatens to undercut and misdirect those multilateral efforts. To prove the success of his approach, he trumpeted the signing of deals worth “at least $300 billion, possibly triple that figure,” but details are missing and it is not clear how many of the commitments are in fact new.
Noticeably missing from Trump’s speeches and comments was any reference to U.S. leadership in the region. This silence is the most troubling component of the president’s rhetoric. U.S. presidents have historically viewed American leadership as critical to regional peace, security and prosperity, and they have guaranteed a U.S. presence and commitment to achieve those objectives. Trump does not seem to think that leadership is worth discussing, either because he does not accept that role or because he takes it as given — forgetting or ignoring that leadership is earned. The mere assertion of U.S. power is not sufficient to claim its place in the region; good reviews, penned by the president, will not suffice either.