Anyone still wondering about the essence of President Trump’s foreign policy doctrine need only reprise his remarks on his 12-day swing through Asia.
That dangerous doctrine can be neatly summarized in one word, repeated over and over. Call it the Doctrine of “Me, Me, Me.”
On a trip where he was lavishly wined and dined in Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing, Da Nang, and Manila, Trump bragged that he had outdone any previous president in pomp and ceremony and relationships with Asian leaders. In Manila, he labeled his trip “epic,” adding, “It was red carpet like nobody, I think, has probably ever received.” On Air Force One, he told reporters: “They say in the history of people coming to China, there’s been nothing like that. And I believe that.” Never mind that the trip produced little new on North Korea or trade — the president’s two main goals. Or that Trump’s confused messaging and naivete left Asian allies wondering about U.S. decline and China’s rise.
The president seemed blissfully unaware that Asian leaders had his number. Aware of his love of flattery, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe feted him with golf and hamburgers at the swanky Kasumi Country Club, and China’s Xi Jinping wowed him with a dinner at the Forbidden City (in contrast, as Trump was quick to point out, with Xi’s snubs of President Barack Obama).
Trump crowed to reporters about Xi’s terrific welcome: “The opera was great, but the following night — that was the first time that theater has been used in the Forbidden City in over a hundred years.” He repeated, “They prepared the theater for that — the first time in over a hundred years. “
Clearly starstruck, Trump gushed: “It’s the … biggest state dinner they’ve ever had, by far, in China. He [Xi] called it a state-plus [dinner]. He actually said, state-plus-plus, which is very interesting.”
The bigger the better in the mind of Donald Trump.
As for his relationship with Xi, Trump said on Air Force One: “We have an amazing feeling toward each other. He’s for China; I’m for the USA. You know, it’s one of those things. But we have a great feeling.”
The president failed to note that Xi had stonewalled on cutting off oil supplies to North Korea. He gave no quarter on the issue of China’s aggression in the South China Sea (and, apparently, Trump did not press him). Nor did the Chinese leader address the trade imbalance that Trump called the equivalent of “rape” when he was campaigning. (Indeed, in Beijing the president said the trade imbalance was “not his [Xi’s] fault,” and blamed it on past U.S. administrations.)
In other words, China’s stonewalling didn’t seem to bother the president. “China likes me, China likes me. And I get along with them,” the president proclaimed on Air Force One.
Which brings us to the dangerous essence of the foreign policy doctrine of “Me, Me, Me.”
The president has made clear he thinks that he, and he alone, makes foreign policy. When asked by Fox News’ Laura Ingraham about sharp cutbacks at the State Department, Trump replied: “I’m the only one that matters because, when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be.”
Trump has publicly undermined Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to the point where foreign officials no longer take the secretary seriously. Even when Trump stays on message, as he did initially on North Korea while in Asia, his inevitable Twitter storm undercuts the adults in his entourage.
In other words, Trump’s tweets and actions will define the policy in the end.
So when the president views all policy through the lens of how dictators treat him, and thinks his special relationships can make dictators bend, that policy is in trouble. Yes, personal relationships are important, but they must be grounded in hard-headed reality, not swayed by photo ops.
Instead, Trump’s voracious appetite for praise and his unbounded ego make him an easy mark for tough-nosed dictators. Especially since he so openly admires strongmen.
That means it’s not just China’s Xi who has Trump’s number. On this trip, Trump again was unsparing in admiration for Vladimir Putin, whom he met with briefly in Vietnam. “We seem to have a very good feeling for each other,” the president said. “I think it’s a very good relationship.”
Remember George W. Bush’s unfortunate remark that he looked Putin in the eye and glimpsed his soul, finding the Russian “to be very straightforward and trustworthy.” The president is convinced that he can do better, stating that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Obama “tried and failed” to relate to Putin because they “didn’t have the right chemistry.”
He, of course, does.
And that is exactly why the former KGB colonel has Trump’s number. The president makes it so easy. On Air Force One, Trump told the press he trusted the Russian leader more than his own intelligence agencies. He also made clear he still believes Putin’s assertion that Russia never hacked the U.S. election in 2016.
Trump’s egocentrism will enable Xi and Putin to keep playing him to their advantage, unless someone (at this stage, who?) can restrain him. The Me, Me, Me foreign policy doctrine is bound to fail.