America First or Alone?
Terry H. Schwadron
Nov. 13, 2017
Well, how did the president do on his 11-day Asia trip? How did America do? As a citizen, I still feel that as the president fares, so does the national reputation.
Before we hear the White House spin, the consensus summary seems to be that the president made a minimum of errors, played up his personality politics, did some short-term business deals, stood with strongmen without challenging their human rights, but generally is not returning with substantial, concrete national security or long-term economic leadership achievements.
Along the way, he lorded it over South Korea and others to back the U.S. leadership against North Korea even while offering a more conciliatory message to the North, he basically kowtowed to rising Chinese sway in the region, he told other Asian friends that they were more or less on their own economically, and he found a way to bow to Vladimir Putin all over again, and he befriended Roberto Duterte in the Philippines. Rather than attacking China, as he had on the campaign trail, for business improprieties, Trump went out of his way to fawn over the Chinese leader, and he threw American intelligence under the bus anew (before trying to walk it back) for daring to suggest that Putin might be lying about having no role in trying to influence U.S. elections.
The other 11 countries of a would-be, American-led Trans-Asian Corporation (TPP) returned the Trump snub by agreeing to continue together towards a common marketplace without the United States. Maybe Trump worked out some pursuable immediate plan with Putin about Syria; we’ll never know unless we are told by the Kremlin was the deal was.
And as far as we can tell, Kim Jong-Un is still at the helm in North Korea with no announced unified plan to take him down, despite calls by Donald Trump to get behind the U.S. opposition to the North Koreans. And confusion to an apparent American pullback in seeking anything like a pan-Asian economic boost. America will look after itself, thank you, said our president.
So, if you’re scoring this trip: No anti-North Korea front, no new businesses flooding back to the U.S. from Asia, no serious wounds from bungled diplomacy. That is especially true if you don’t count things like suggesting to the Japanese that they should be building cars in the United States (I guess Trump has not shopped for a Toyota.) or failing to show up at a dramatic meeting with the South Korean president at the DMZ on the bristling military Korean border because the weather was bad, cancelling his helicopter while the South Korean president drove. However, Fox News pointed out that U.S. companies had announced billion worth of deals in China, including Boeing with a $37 billion agreement to sell 300 planes to China; General Electric which had three deals worth $3 billion, and Qualcomm with three nonbinding deals to sell $12 billion of semiconductors. Future deals followed in Vietnam for GE and Caterpillar.
Politically, I was struck by a summary explanation from Tang Siew Mun, head of an Asean studies center in Singapore, who was quoted by The New York Times: “China has made significant inroads in cultivating Southeast Asia. This isn’t an entirely bad proposition for the region, but China’s success is disastrous for the U.S., as Chinese advances are at the U.S.’s expense.”
“At the end of the day,” Tang told the Times, “‘America First’ may devolve into the U.S. being home alone.”
James Wasserstrom, a professor of modern Chinese history at UC Irvine told The Guardian newspaper, “China wants good photo ops to show the domestic audience that Xi is equal to Trump, and China is almost guaranteed to get that.”
I am sure that the White House thought this a great trip, a showcase for diplomatic Trump, who dutifully underwent formal greetings in the several different nations, attended a Chinese opera, visited a Japanese plant, and lined up for the appropriate group photos without pushing anyone else out of the way. Indeed it was reported that the foreign hosts went out of their way to keep visits and events short and focused to appeal to Trump.
But somewhere, someone must be asking why did Trump go if he had no agenda? Or if he had a real, practicable agenda, what happened to it? What was the point besides extending his personality politics? With all the America First talk, the America must win agenda items, you would think there would be some practical benefits from this extended trip. But no economic agreements, no Chinese-American resolve on North Korea, no special diplomatic effort involving South Koreans. Is avoidance of some dumb mistakes now the new measure of a successful foreign swing?
Other than telling Japan to buy more U.S.-manufactured weapons systems and inviting bilateral agreements, there was little to warm American hearts from this visit. The America First entreaties seemed to fall on silent ears, while Asian countries started planning for a future without U.S. leadership. And China, always China, was listening on the sidelines.
There were few winners from this trip, besides those specific companies who announced deals. The biggest loser seemed to be a more diminished role for U.S. leadership, which has divisions and troubles at home and lacked a fully engaged diplomatic staff or message,