Trump in Asia: A test for ‘America First’
If the point of President Trump’s 12-day tour of Asia was to “reassure allies at a time of tension” while clarifying U.S. policy toward the region, said Adam Taylor in The Washington Post, then the president went 0 for 2. Trump certainly seemed to enjoy himself on the trip— golfing with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, soaking up the pageantry at a state dinner inside China’s Forb idden City—but his various statements added up to an “incoherent message” that left our allies more confused than ever. In Seoul, Trump gave a powerful speech denouncing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, said Julie Davis in The New York Times, and he showered lavish personal compliments on each of the leaders hosting him. But in Vietnam, Trump gave a “strikingly hostile” speech vowing to “put America first” in matters of trade, a “starkly unilateralist approach” that echoed the ugly, anti-globalist rhetoric of his campaign. Trump may have survived the trip with no major gaffes, but “it is not at all clear what he actually achieved.”
“If Trump’s policy is ‘starkly unilateralist,’ so be it,” said Irwin Stelzer in WeeklyStandard.com. Decades of flawed, one-sided trade deals have led to a great “hollowing out” of the U.S. industrial sector. Under the current “rigged trade system,” for example, U.S. firms have to go head-to-head with Chinese firms that enjoy protective tariffs, hefty subsidies from Beijing, “and a domestic market ring-fenced to protect them from foreign competition.” Trump was absolutely right to declare that he is “not going to let the United States be taken advantage of anymore.” “America First,” to Trump, is not a purely selfish policy but “a model for the rest of the world to follow,” said Gillian Turner in TheHill.com. Rather than pursue ever more entangled trade relations, Trump was saying, in essence, that every Asian leader should help “his or her country become its best self.”
The president failed to put America first on his egocentric “adulation tour,” said David Ignatius in The Washington Post. Frankly, this trip felt more like “a pilgrimage than a projection of power,” with Trump flattering autocrats left and right to gain their help on North Korea. Trump even showered praise on Vladimir Putin, saying he “really” believed the Russian autocrat’s claims that he didn’t meddle in the 2016 election, contradicting U.S. intelligence.
The low point, said Jay Nordlinger in NationalReview.com, was Trump’s meeting with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. When Duterte, who has defended the killing of journalists, called the assembled U.S. press “spies,” Trump chuckled along. If the supposed leader of the free world won’t challenge Duterte’s abysmal human rights record, he could “at least refrain from laughing.”
Trump may aspire to be a strongman like Duterte or Putin, said Dahleen Glanton in the Chicago Tribune, but they’re better at it than he is. China’s Xi in particular “played him like a fool,” wooing Trump with flattery and banquets until he shelved any notion of actually “standing up to the Chinese” on trade. Trump’s most substantive statement of the trip, said Sohrab Ahmari in CommentaryMagazine.com, was probably the childish tweet he sent from Vietnam mocking North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as “short and fat.” In the end, the search for a coherent “Trump doctrine” on foreign policy may find nothing but the “signature mixture of childish insult and narcissistic grievance” that drives much of his domestic agenda. With North Korean ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons now in the picture, that is “no laughing matter.”