I waited after President Trump returned from Asia before writing this piece to try and see what came from the trip. I wanted the trip to be successful. Whenever the President, regardless of party, regardless of how we voted, regardless of how we view his performance, travels abroad we need him to be successful. Domestic politics goes aside during these trips because so much is at stake and it is about our country as a whole: National security, nuclear weapons, fair trade, the environment, etc. I watched coverage of the trip and hoped there was real substance beneath all the flare because so much was at stake. Like many Americans, I was disappointed. And then I watched the President’s awful, self-aggrandizing, and inaccurate speech during which he praised himself for 35 minutes. Now is time to look at the trip.
The trip accomplished little. Much to my chagrin, our President got played and thus so did we. President Trump loves sycophants and surrounds himself with people who tell him how great he is rather than help him lead and govern (same as he did in business). Each nation on the trip followed the classic Trump playbook. Appeal to his ego with all kinds of fanfare and tell him how great he is. Distract him with the classic “shiny ball” while taking advantage of him and manipulating him. The host nations all did this very well, giving little and taking much. Unfortunately, there was very little substance beneath all the inane love fests and symbolism. It looked great but accomplished little.
In fairness, I want to acknowledge that President Trump did a decent job on North Korea. There was no way to completely solve the issue during this trip, but the rhetoric and the show of unity were very good and sent the right signal going forward. China may not actually accomplish anything with North Korea, but even they spoke positively about helping. China is rightfully weary of having three U.S. aircraft carrier groups in the area and this may help them make a bona fide effort with Kim Jong Un. However, moving a little south was a different story. While addressing the South Korean government, the President made the unfortunate choice to go off message and shamelessly promote his private business, specifically the Bedminster National Golf Club. This was apparently more important to him than assuaging South Korea about our existing trade agreement.
The most important issue for our Asian partners is trade, followed closely by regional security. Every other nation proceeded on the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement. President Trump opposed TPP during the campaign, but he never understood it or its importance to the rest of the nations. Secretary Clinton made a big mistake changing her position to oppose TPP rather than explain why it was important to the U.S. The U.S. opting out of TPP does nothing to stop it, but only prevents the U.S. from benefitting from the arrangement. American workers have good reason to be weary of these agreements because they often do not see the benefits. However, the key is to properly negotiate the agreements, to include the interests of American workers and companies, and then ensure proper enforcement of the terms. TPP is a reality and gives incredible access to 40% of the world’s economy. By opting out, all Trump did was prevent the U.S. from accessing this significant market and put us at a disadvantage. With the U.S. gone, China again rules the roost, free to exploit and control this huge economic zone. Further exacerbating this situation, through trade often comes security. Many nations rely on multilateral trade agreements to bolster their security arrangements and TPP is no different. We have given China, as well as Russia, both huge U.S. economic and security adversaries if not outright enemies, the unfettered ability to dominate the region and continue hurting U.S. businesses and security interests. President Trump suggests he prefers bilateral trade agreements. The problem is that the other regional countries all want larger agreements, not bilateral ones with the U.S. This is especially true with Trump in office because of his infamous business practice of reneging on contracts. The bottom line is that although there is a legitimate debate over TPP, the U.S. left this summit with nothing whatsoever while China left with everything.
The big challenge with this and similar trips to the region is the critical strategic relationships we need to maintain for our national security and the economy. We need good relations with every country in the region to promote trade as well as geopolitical stability. Some of the region’s leaders and governments have abysmal records when it comes to human rights, freedom, and democracy. Historically, presidents have addressed these concerns up front during discussions and then moved forward with other matters. This has been the cornerstone of our relations with Russia, China, et al. Until now. President Trump again displayed an inappropriate, undemocratic affinity for the world’s worst dictators. He completely abdicated his responsibility to raise human rights and issues of freedom and democracy as every one of his predecessors has done. Instead, he celebrated the dictators and praised their repressive efforts.
The recent emergence of Duterte in The Philippines poses a real challenge. The U.S. and The Philippines have had close military and economic ties since World War II. However, Duterte is a violent, repressive leader heading down a dictatorial path. In recent years the U.S. and Vietnam have established good economic and security relations as we have with Malaysia, Myanmar, Indonesia, and others. These relationships, along with others in the region, are critical considering Chinese economic and military expansion. We need these countries to see us as a better partner than China. Not only does China continue its practices of currency manipulation, theft of intellectual property, unfair trade practices, etc., but they have been manufacturing artificial islands in the South China Sea to create a territorial claim threatening access to what is the most important sea lanes in the world. In 2016, Candidate Trump understood this well. However, President Trump chooses to ignore these issues, despite their critical importance to U.S. security and economic priorities. Instead, he enjoys public love fests with repressive, dictatorial leaders and ignores U.S. priorities.
President Trump’s ridiculous affection for Vladimir Putin, one of the most dangerous leaders in the world and an enemy of the U.S., was again on display during this trip. The President disgraced himself and embarrassed the country when he said he believed Putin’s denial of trying to interfere with the U.S. election, thus not believing the entire U.S. intelligence community. Trump made this much worse by denigrating John Brennan and James Clapper, referring to them as “hacks.” Brennan and Clapper are career military (flag officers) and government servants with almost 50 years combined impeccable service to the nation. Additionally, they did not invent the intelligence reports about Russian interference, but rather each had the privilege of representing the hundreds of intelligence professionals in multiple agencies who prepared the reports on this important matter. The impact of their actions may be in debate, but the evidence that Russia interfered with the election is overwhelming and incontrovertible. But Putin is the one telling the truth? President Trump did make one deal on this trip. He apparently made a deal with Putin for a security company owned by one of Putin’s allies to take over the security for the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. This may be more immediately dangerous than North Korea’s weapons program…