Over the past week, as the political world focused on the ongoing saga of Roy Moore’s sexual misconduct, Donald Trump was busy traveling in Asia eroding the underpinnings of American foreign policy.
As much as Trump has been a disaster on the domestic front, his performance on the international stage has in some ways been worse; and his recent 12-day trip to the Far East is a good example of why.
The Asia trip encapsulated all the foibles of Trump’s foreign policy performance: the chasm between rhetoric and reality; the complete inattention to core American values; and Trump’s limitless neediness and insecurity that seems to always override actual US interests.
Take, for example, trade — an issue that Trump hammered on during the presidential campaign. Trump, who pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership on his first week in office, sounded in Asia not like a liberal internationalist but rather like an anachronistic mercantilist.
In Vietnam, he declared, “We are not going to let the United States be taken advantage of anymore. I am always going to put America first, the same way I expect all of you in this room to put your countries first.”
But, Trump’s approach to trade is putting America second. Trump likes to claim that he is a master negotiator who will work out great trade agreements with Asian countries. But the reality is that there is little incentive for any Asian government to negotiate a bilateral deal with the United States, particularly since Trump has spoken of renegotiating deals already made, like the US free trade deal with South Korea.
Indeed, as Trump arrived in Asia, most of the TPP countries announced they are moving toward a region-wide free trade deal that will exclude the United States. The United States now finds itself on the outside looking in as Asian countries work among themselves to lower trade barriers, which will, in time, penalize US exporters.
But beyond the economic impact, there is the larger security cost. TPP was a trade deal, but it was also a way to counterbalance the rise of China as a regional hegemon. But with the United States signaling its intention to go its own way, the opposite will likely occur — countries that can no longer rely on the United States will increasingly find themselves sucked into Beijing’s orbit.
As Mira Rapp-Hooper, a senior research scholar at the China Center at Yale Law School, pointed out, Trump’s “very dark” message on trade was not matched by any sort of larger discussion on America’s long-term role in the region. This “lack of an overall Asia strategy from the Trump administration,” says Rapp-Hooper, “only advantages China.” The United States is creating a vacuum, she says, on both economic and security issues — and increasingly it is the Chinese who will fill it.
Indeed, Trump’s past campaign rhetoric, attacking China for taking advantage of the United States, went out the window. Instead, he praised the Chinese for policies he once labeled as unfair. “Who can blame a country that is able to take advantage of another country for the benefit of its citizens?” Trump asked. “I give China great credit.”
According to Devin Stewart, a senior fellow and director of the Carnegie Council’s Asia program, this is a big win for China, which “will continue to play the odd persona of being an advocate of free markets and globalization. They will continue to try and look like a benevolent and benign power,” when in reality their larger goal is to be a powerful and bullying regional hegemon.
Trump directly helped in that effort by praising China’s leader, Xi Jinping. He called the nation’s authoritarian ruler a “highly respected and powerful representative of his people” and described with fulsome praise the warm relationship between the two men. It’s yet one more indication that Trump is the cheapest of cheap dates, who will throw core US interests under the bus if a foreign leader bats his or her eyes at him.
Nowhere was Trump’s susceptibility to flattery and his preference for strongmen leaders more depressingly obvious than in his visit to the Philippines with his other Asian man-crush, President Rodrigo Duterte. The fact that Duterte is a thug, running a human rights atrocity masquerading as a war on drugs, seems to be of little interest to the president, who has praised Duterte’s murderous methods in the past. More than a year ago, Duterte called President Obama the “son of a whore,” which ordinarily would preclude chumminess from a US president. Not Trump. He palled around with Duterte, laughed at his attacks on journalists (who have been murdered in the Philippines at a frightening clip) and, as Rapp-Hooper pointed out to me, held up as a badge of honor that he gets along better with Duterte than Obama.
For Trump, foreign relations are all about feeding his bottomless ego, US interests be damned. In the end, that is the most depressing aspect of Trump’s trip. What we saw across Asia was the United States refuse to stick up not only for its interests but its values.
The rules-based international system that the United States has helped build over the past seven decades depends on the active engagement of American leaders. It relies on US presidents standing up for human rights when venturing to China. It relies on them finding common ground on trade and security with key allies and strengthening the regional and international institutions that not only further US interests, but also help maintain international peace and security. Trump’s trip to Asia — as was the case in his trip earlier this year to Europe — did the exact opposite.
This wasn’t America First; it was America worst.Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.