A presidential tour of Asia cannot hide the fact that America has turned inward, hurting itself and the world
A YEAR ago this week Donald Trump was elected president. Many people predicted that American foreign policy would take a disastrous turn. Mr Trump had suggested that he would scrap trade deals, ditch allies, put a figurative bomb under the rules-based global order and drop literal ones willy-nilly. NATO was “obsolete”, he said; NAFTA was “the worst trade deal maybe ever”; and America was far too nice to foreigners. “In the old days when you won a war, you won a war. You kept the country,” he opined, adding later that he would “bomb the shit out of” Islamic State (IS) and “take the oil”.
So far, Mr Trump’s foreign policy has been less awful than he promised. Granted, he has pulled America out of the Paris accord, making it harder to curb climate change, and abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a big trade deal. However, he has not retreated pell-mell into isolationism. He has not quit NATO; indeed, some of America’s eastern European allies prefer his tough-talk to the cool detachment of Barack Obama. He has not started any wars. He has stepped up America’s defence of Afghanistan’s beleaguered government, and helped Iraq recapture cities from IS. In the parts of the world to which he pays little attention, such as Africa, an understaffed version of the previous administration’s policy continues on autopilot. As Mr Trump makes a 12-day visit to Asia, it is hard to dismiss him as a man wholly disengaged from the world.
Many people find reassurance in the sober, capable military men who surround him (see article). His chief of staff, his defence secretary and his national security adviser all understand the horrors of war and will stop him from doing anything rash, the argument goes. Optimists even speculate that he might emulate Ronald Reagan, by shaking up the diplomatic establishment, restoring America’s military muscle and projecting such strength abroad that a frightened, overstretched North Korea will crumble like the Soviet Union. Others confidently predict that even if he causes short-term damage to America’s standing in the world, Mr Trump will be voted out in 2020 and things will return to normal.
Reagan, he ain’t
All this is wishful thinking. On security, Mr Trump has avoided some terrible mistakes. He has not started a needless row with China over Taiwan’s ambiguous status, as he once threatened to do. Congress and the election-hacking scandal prevented him from pursuing a grand bargain with Vladimir Putin that might have left Russia’s neighbours at the Kremlin’s mercy. And he has apparently coaxed China to exert a little more pressure on North Korea to stop expanding its nuclear arsenal.
However, he has made some serious errors, too, such as undermining the deal with Iran that curbs its ability to make nuclear bombs. And his instincts are atrocious. He imagines he has nothing to learn from history. He warms to strongmen, such as Mr Putin and Xi Jinping. His love of generals is matched by a disdain for diplomats—he has gutted the State Department, losing busloads of experienced ambassadors. His tweeting is no joke: he undermines and contradicts his officials without warning, and makes reckless threats against Kim Jong Un, whose paranoia needs no stoking. Furthermore, Mr Trump has yet to be tested by a crisis. Level-headed generals may advise him, but he is the commander-in-chief, with a temperament that alarms friend and foe alike.
On trade, he remains wedded to a zero-sum view of the world, in which exporters “win” and importers “lose”. (Are the buyers of Ivanka Trump-branded clothes and handbags, which are made in Asia, losers?) Mr Trump has made clear that he favours bilateral deals over multilateral ones, because that way a big country like America can bully small ones into making concessions. The trouble with this approach is twofold. First, it is deeply unappealing to small countries, which by the way also have protectionist lobbies to overcome. Second, it would reproduce the insanely complicated mishmash of rules that the multilateral trade system was created to simplify and trim. The Trump team probably will not make a big push to disrupt global trade until tax reform has passed through Congress. But when and if that happens, all bets are off—NAFTA is still in grave peril.
Perhaps the greatest damage that Mr Trump has done is to American soft power. He openly scorns the notion that America should stand up for universal values such as democracy and human rights. Not only does he admire dictators; he explicitly praises thuggishness, such as the mass murder of criminal suspects in the Philippines. He does so not out of diplomatic tact, but apparently out of conviction. This is new. Previous American presidents supported despots for reasons of cold-war realpolitik. (“He’s a bastard, but he’s our bastard,” as Harry Truman is reputed to have said of an anti-communist tyrant in Nicaragua.) Mr Trump’s attitude seems more like: “He’s a bastard. Great!”
This repels America’s liberal allies, in Europe, East Asia and beyond. It emboldens autocrats to behave worse, as in Saudi Arabia this week, where the crown prince’s dramatic political purges met with Mr Trump’s blessing (see article). It makes it easier for China to declare American-style democracy passé, and more tempting for other countries to copy China’s autocratic model (see article).
The idea that things will return to normal after a single Trump term is too sanguine. The world is moving on. Asians are building new trade ties, often centred on China. Europeans are working out how to defend themselves if they cannot rely on Uncle Sam. And American politics are turning inward: both Republicans and Democrats are more protectionist now than they were before Mr Trump’s electoral triumph.
For all its flaws, America has long been the greatest force for good in the world, upholding the liberal order and offering an example of how democracy works. All that is imperilled by a president who believes that strong nations look out only for themselves. By putting “America First”, he makes it weaker, and the world worse off.