Who is America’s worst enemy? It’s not North Korea’s Kim Jong-un
Kevin Rafferty says Donald Trump’s Asia tour revealed for all the world to see his lack of global leadership and America’s inability to cope with China’s rise under his presidency
US President Donald Trump’s visits to five Asian countries ended with Trump full of himself, claiming that the trip proved “America is back” as a global power. “The days of the United States being taken advantage of are over”, he declared.
In those few boasts, Trump laid bare his, America’s and, ultimately, the world’s failure to put together a credible policy for a fragile and fractured planet.
No commentator worth a CNN sound bite could see the achievements Trump imagined. The rest of the world does not live in the dangerous empire of Trump’s mind, where Trump is constantly moving to strike a deal and save the world, or at least America.
Seven top moments from Donald Trump’s Asia visit
Trump operates quite unlike any other US president. His predecessors spent time consulting experts, studying the issues and devising “Plan A” for the best outcome, with at least plans B to E for the inevitable unexpected twists and turns.
Even so, it is debatable whether America would be stronger if Trump had stayed at home rather embarking on his Asia tour, as some have claimed. US administrations throughout history have had distinguished cabinet members. Abraham Lincoln had a team of rivals, Harry Truman’s secretaries of state were General George Marshall and Dean Acheson, while Dwight Eisenhower had John Foster Dulles. They were distinguished in their own right and could hold their own with world leaders.
Who would have gone in Trump’s place? Fawner-in-chief Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, or vainglorious Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who paraded himself and his wife in front of dollar bills like James Bond villains?
Tillerson had a distinguished business career, but has undermined his influence by slashing his own budget and failing to fill important jobs. Although he has recently advocated talking to North Korea, rumours of his distance from Trump and imminent dismissal don’t help.
Professor Hugh White recently mocked “Washington’s formidable band of Asia experts”. America does have high-quality experts on many countries in Asia, but none are in Trump’s government.
America has a problem in responding to China’s global rise. If you travel to Asia and look at the tourists and commercial advertising, it is clear that China’s footprint is growing and the West’s is faltering. Even the most popular US products are made in China.
Trump’s own slogans, notably renaming the region the “Indo-Pacific” and unveiling his big idea of “the Quad” (Australia, India, Japan and the US) as a countervailing force against China’s domination, raise questions. Does Trump see the Quad as a potential organisation to challenge China? They are four independent, far-flung democracies, each with their own tensions, each with separate relations with Beijing.
Trump himself is America’s worst enemy, undermining the country’s global role by roaring “America first” and laying plans to challenge China, South Korea and Japan, in effect seeking to blow up the multilateral trade and economic order for bilateral deals in which Trump has to come out on top. He is a quintessential short-term, must-win deal maker with a zero-sum mentality.
The challenge is to work with China in establishing common standards for the future of an endangered Earth. President Xi Jinping has made the right noises as a champion of the global commons, but China has too many historical sores to scratch. The way forward is to persuade Xi to be as generous as the post-war US was in tackling the Earth’s problems.
That sadly, does not solve the problem of Trump.
Kevin Rafferty, a former Osaka University professor and World Bank official, is a journalist who has edited daily newspapers in 30 cities worldwide