Steak and Distractions

April 8, 2017

Trump and Xi Jinping just concluded two days of supposedly tough discussions at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Florida club where he goes to get away from the troubles of Washington. It’s unclear what exactly came out of the two days’ worth of meetings, but from press reports they allegedly discussed North Korea and the trade deficit, two items Trump had flagged as priorities. And as a delightful welcome around the time they were finishing dinner the first evening, Trump authorized US military strikes on a Syrian airbase in a stunning reversal of his “America First” policy that wasn’t supposed to include such actions. Putting aside whether the strikes were warranted in light of Assad’s horrific attack on his own people using illegal chemical weapons, much has been made about the timing and message that Trump was sending to his guest. Was the rapid reversal in Trump’s approach to Syria merely a reaction to the gruesome images of dying babies or was it also motivated by some bigger picture thinking about the kind of message he wants to send to Xi and others about the US’ future role in conflicts around the globe. It would be generous to think Trump truly understands the implications of his attack and actually has a plan for bringing the Syrian conflict to an end. I mean this was the man who told us throughout the election that he had a plan to defeat ISIS, but it was so good that he did not want to share it before he could implement. Upon taking office, we quickly learned that plan never existed.  It was a similar pattern with health care, though in a rare admission, Trump acknowledged in the midst of the health care debacle that it was “complicated”.  So here we are with Syria, a foreign policy quagmire that has gone on pretty much unabated for six years or so and we’d be naive to think that Trump has an actual plan to bring about a resolution to this seemingly intractable problem.  But I digress.

Back to the Xi-Trump meetings in Florida and the two of them enjoying their Dover sole and steak dinner as missiles were fired at a Syrian air base. It’s curious that this meeting, which was built up quite a bit in the press in spite of all of the other distractions facing Trump, turned out to fade quickly from the front pages of the news. And most of the stories about the meeting were in relation to the Syrian missile strike trying to understand how it would impact US-China relations. It’s clear the chemical weapons Assad used were inhumane and gruesome, but the reaction from a man who earlier in the week said getting rid of Assad was not a priority and as far back as 2013 advised Obama not to bomb Syria seems slightly off. Even attributing it to his unpredictability and penchant for chaos is not enough of an explanation. I think the attack was partially a response to Assad’s chemical attack, but I do think it was a way to both send a message to Xi that he could do the same in North Korea and more importantly (and perhaps a bit cynically), did it to boost his standing among those calling for a more robust response to Syria and already incredibly critical of Trump. Trump is a man who craves popularity and doesn’t particularly care from who he receives it. He is a man who attacks unfavorable polls as fake news precisely because he cares way too much about those polls.  So now with his popularity plummeting and the support he relied on not doing much to boost those numbers, he’s ready to try something to boost the top-line number so he doesn’t go down as the most unpopular president this early on in their tenure. Once again, I get distracted.

So where does that leave this meeting between the leaders of two of the most consequential countries on the planet. We got a pledge to do something within 100 days about the trade deficit, which is about as meaningful to long-term policy as China sending us another panda for the National Zoo. While cute and a good sound bite, it does nothing to constructively deal with the issues affecting relations between the two countries. We heard nothing about North Korea, human rights, Hong Kong, the South China Sea, climate change, or any of the other myriad issues that the countries could possibly work on. Perhaps Xi got a nice photo-op with the palm trees in the background and Trump showed a bit more respect for decorum as he greeted Xi, including an actual handshake, but no tangible progress was made in dealing with problems that are only going to grow in magnitude. I guess it’s not so much of a surprise when many senior roles related to Asia remain unfilled and even when Obama was operating at full capacity, he was unable to do much to move the dial when it came to China and Asia. Unfortunately Americans are not paying enough attention to this part of the world at a time when it’s ever more important that they do and we have a government woefully underprepared to give it the attention is needs and deserves.  It may take a crisis of epic proportions to get everyone to wake up and take the requisite notice, which could be more frightening than anything we’ve seen yet.

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China is allegedly building structures on artificial islands in the South China Sea that could potentially hold long-range surface-to-air missiles.  If this turns out to be true, this move is another step forward by China to lay claim to the South China Sea while simultaneously serving as another poke at the U.S. to see what they’re really committed to doing to ensure the South China Sea remains open and free.  However, China’s most recent alleged provocation is symptomatic of a bigger problem when it comes to the U.S.’ engagement with Asia.  During the Obama years, while he and others in his administration made much about a “pivot” to Asia or a re-balancing toward the region, the words were often much more substantive than the actions undertaken by his government.  Now we have a president who can barely articulate a single policy, let alone an entire grand strategy.

Trump’s idea of policies are not-so-pithy one-liners like branding China a currency manipulator or claiming that Japan does not pay enough for U.S. security.  His actions are meant more to rile up other parties and hew much more closely to the reality show theatrics with which he’s more comfortable , whether it was fielding a call from Taiwan’s president in the aftermath of the election and holding out as long as possible before re-affirming the “One China” policy that undergirded U.S.-China relations since early 1970s. North Korea tests a long-range missile and Trump decides that during dinner at his private club is the best time and place to plot the U.S.’ reaction to such a provocation.  Even the theatrics are of a low-budget variety.

The only action Trump seems to have followed through on was his executive order pulling the U.S. out of the TPP and effectively ceding to China the power to write the rules of commerce for Asia and most likely the rest of the world.  Abdicating a voice in such a crucial policy sphere that is vital to continued American prosperity is going to have the opposite effect of making America great.  Rather than keeping its seat at the head of the table and crafting the evolving rules of global trade, America is going to have to play by the rules set by others that may not be as advantageous to our long-term prosperity as those rules we were able to lay out in the TPP.  Putting aside the merits of the TPP for a second, what was most important about that agreement was continued American leadership in coming up with Version 2.0 of the rules and frameworks that have taken the world to this point from the aftermath of WWII.  If Trump has his way, it won’t only be the TPP, but NATO, our vital alliances with Japan, South Korea, and Australia, and even the EU which has more often than not been a trusted and intellectually equal partner spurring us to do better on many matters of global importance.

We are at an inflection point in Asia and the rest of the world where a grand strategies with  far-reaching and enlightened thinking is needed.  Unfortunately, very little coming out of Washington these days seems all that grand except perhaps that atrium in Trump’s DC hotel.