Trump’s Asia trip was hardly the success he says it was

By Ishaan Tharoor* –  The Washington Post
All things considered, President Trump’s lengthy five-country trip to Asia was not the total fiasco some feared it could be. The president had a chummy swing through Japan and then delivered a well-received speech before the South Korean parliament. He made the conventional noises expected from a U.S. leader about his country’s commitments to security in the Asia-Pacific and moved to restore an ambitious Bush-era military bloc seen as a check to rising Chinese power.

On more testy matters, particularly his complaints about American trade deficits, Trump seemingly made the grandstanding remarks his base may have wanted to hear without causing much offense to his hosts. He returned to the United States on Tuesday and promptly fired off tweets extolling the effects of his diplomacy.
“The Trump that the five nations encountered, especially initially, was something of a Trump-lite — a more polite, restrained version of the leader he often presents back home,” wrote my colleague Ashley Parker. “It was the result, perhaps, of some combination of travel-induced exhaustion, savvy flattery on the part of the Asian leaders and a visit carefully choreographed by White House aides to leave little down time for mischief-making.”
Trump’s boosters saw him presiding over a new era of American policymaking. James Jay Carafano, the vice president of the right-wing Heritage Foundation, styled Trump’s trip as a precursor to a shift in “the security of architecture of Asia,” with Washington benignly maintaining a consensus among its friends and allies. “Like the planners who plant grass and put sidewalks where the people walk, the United States will likely let a cooperative structure emerge from the regional players,” Carafano wrote.
But Trump hardly went gaffe-free, and his tour raised more questions about the president’s worldview than it answered. Apart from his criticisms of North Korea, he made no strong statements about human rights, the rule of law or the strengthening of democracies while in Asia — unlike, say, his Canadian counterpart. Trump courted outrage at home when he appeared to side with Vladimir Putin on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election over the assessments of his own intelligence community. A tweet aimed at North Korea’s “short” and “fat” despot proved to be both churlish and confusing.
“They are what they are,” White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly said of Trump’s mid-tour tweets. “But like, you know in preparation for this trip, we did the staff work, got him ready to go and then at each place we brief him up on whatever the next event is and all that. The tweets don’t run my life — good staff work runs it.”
But all that good staff work couldn’t check the extent to which Trump turned broad matters of U.S. policy into personal whims. Before heading east, he brushed aside concerns over the staggering depletion of the State Department, insisting in a friendly interview that he was “the only one that matters.”
“Trump’s personalization of foreign policy makes credible commitment next to impossible. If Trump is the only spokesperson, then his idiotic tweets matter, no matter how much his chief of staff, John Kelly, pretends they don’t,” wrote Dan Drezner for The Post. “Trump wants to rally all of Asia around him to confront North Korea to coax Pyongyang into negotiations. It is extremely difficult to make that sale, however, if the sole person who matters keeps speaking erratically on the subject (or any subject). It also makes it next to impossible for North Korea to entertain negotiating with Trump.”
Trump’s preening is made worse by the fact that he won few concessions from anyone. White House aides boasted of hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of trade deals inked in China, which turned out to be mostly memorandums or preexisting agreements that likely won’t come to fruition any time soon. Meanwhile, China didn’t need to budge much on any of its core economic or geopolitical areas of disagreement with Washington. Trump even praised Chinese President Xi Jinping for his nation’s taking “advantage” of the United States.
“Trump teetered somewhere between a joke and a disgrace from an American perspective — and an unbridled godsend from Xi’s,” wrote Slate’s Fred Kaplan.
Even countries closer to the U.S. orbit seemed to balk at Trump’s desire to negotiate new bilateral trade agreements to replace the multilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) he jettisoned in January. Virtually moments after Trump left Japan, the country’s finance minister made clear there would be no new free-trade pact with the United States.
“I think everyone was polite to [Trump] and they want to make him think that they are all chummy and willing to do things with him. But I have to think in some ways they are laughing behind his back, and certainly the Chinese are,” an American business lobbyist told the Financial Times. “I don’t think any of them have any intention of getting into a deal with him, certainly not on the terms that he wants.”
“Trump has long displayed mercantilist, zero-sum thinking in which trade deals are all about grabbing market share rather than economic efficiency,” wrote James Pethokoukis of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “It’s also odd to focus on trade deficits as the cause of American economic problems when if anything there is a correlation between good economic times and wider trade deficits, such as right now. A more open and globalized trading system has been overall beneficial for the US both economically and geopolitically. Trump’s trade policy is a stunning example of economic self harm.”
Trump and the ideologues in his inner circle have spent more than a year complaining about the evils of multilateralism. But complicated, overlapping regional blocs increasingly define Asian geopolitics. A host of Asian countries, along with partners elsewhere, are even seeking to refashion the TPP without Washington and announced their plans not long after Trump railed against these sort of agreements in Vietnam.
“In short, allies have shown their willingness to move past America and actively construct a post-American world, partly to expand regional trade as well as to keep China’s rising influence in check,” wrote Richard Javad Heydarian, an expert on Asian geopolitics.
Trump long mocked his Democratic predecessor for ushering in a “post-American” world. Now it may start to really emerge under his own watch. November 15
*Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.