Presidential trips abroad are often more about pageantry and rhetoric than substantive policymaking, but as President Trump’s long tour of Asia ends, it’s looking particularly lightweight.
In stops to places like Japan, South Korea, China and Vietnam and finally the Philippines, Trump heaped flattery on his hosts — particularly Chinese President Xi Jinping — and largely avoided provocative tweets.
While making a substantial effort to strengthen his personal relationships with Asian leaders, he rebuffed Russia’s Vladi mir Putin by declining a bilateral meeting at the summit they both are attending.
Overall, however, the Asia tour has looked like a missed opportunity for Trump to spell out more detailed and workable formulations of his security and economic policies.
He has delivered a couple of set-piece policy speeches, one on the nuclear threat of North Korea and another on U.S. economic and trade relations with Asia. Yet they were studded with unrealistic goals and rhetoric more suited to the campaign trail than the diplomatic arena.
Trump’s speech in the Vietnamese city of Danang on Friday read as if lifted from one of the rallies he stages in the United States. He denounced “chronic trade abuses” that he said “stripped . . . jobs, factories and industries,” and vowed that, “We are not going to allow the United States to be taken advantage of anymore.” But he offered no specific remedies, other than a vague willingness to “make bilateral trade agreements with any Indo-Pacific nation.”
Given the president’s insistence on renegotiating the existing U.S.-South Korea trade agreement, he’s likely to get few takers among the 11 countries that signed up for the multilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership that Trump repudiated; instead, they are working on a way to move forward without the United States.
In Seoul, Trump delivered an address that admirably spelled out the horrors of North Korea — not just its relentless pursuit of a nuclear arsenal but also its tyrannical enslavement of its people.
To his credit, he avoided past threats of subjecting North Korea to “fire and fury” and offered the prospect of negotiations, which he previously called a waste of time. But the terms Trump publicly reiterated — that the regime of Kim Jong Un accept “total denuclearization” at the beginning of the process — are unrealistic.
The president’s notion of how to achieve this breakthrough sounds equally far-fetched. According to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, President Trump told Xi that, “You’re a strong man” and “You can, I’m sure, solve this for me.” In public Trump proposed that Beijing cease all trade with Pyongyang and send home its workers.
But Xi’s government has repeatedly rejected the idea that it can or would deliver Kim. Trump’s excessive public flattery of the Chinese ruler, whom he called “a very special man,” and his ready acquiescence to autocratic practices such as the prohibition of press conference questions, offered an unseemly spectacle of obeisance to a dictator.
Tillerson is reportedly pursuing a more pragmatic approach to Pyongyang, offering dialogue following a 60-day freeze of missile and nuclear tests.
But in general, the administration evidently lacks a concerted strategy for acting on the president’s rhetoric.
In the absence of such a strategy, the toasts and threats of this Asia trip will soon be forgotten.
This editorial first appeared in the Washington Post.