RICHARD BUTLER. Eat Your Heart out Marco Polo

Nov 17, 2017

“They say in the history of people coming to China, there’s been nothing like that. And I believe it”… President Donald Trump speaking about his Asian travels, to journalists on Airforce One, en route to Hanoi.

 The volume of materials available on Trump’s statements, claims, tweets, remains daunting and numbing, but, they do serve to elucidate what passes for his thinking, and far more importantly, his feelings and emotional needs – which seem unbounded.

Of the current batch, little rewards scrutiny more closely than the transcript of what he said to journalists, while flying to Hanoi, five days ago, following the APEC meeting in Da Nang. ( See; Amber Phillips, “He means it”, Washington Post , November 11th, 2017). Indeed, essential reading.

In Trump’s survey of his visit to China, everything he touched or was presented to him, was “very epic”; the biggest, the most glittering, the richest, without precedent in history.

Forget about all the others. Marco Polo, way back in the late 13th century, and in the modern period, the sea changes, in relations with the Peoples Republic, forged by Whitlam, Kissinger and Nixon.

Trump’s core point was that President Xi really liked him and he liked Xi, right back.

Trump’s days in Beijing proved to be a triumph for Xi, China and Chinese diplomacy. They got Trump’s number perfectly – the show, not the substance, was what would count. Their detailed, spectacular, management of the visit would win and, it did.

We are asked by Trump, to believe that everything of importance was discussed: North Korea, trade, for example, but virtually no details were given. To ensure that this would remain the case, Xi and Trump made a formal appearance before the media, at the end, but took no questions.

In Da Nang, the differences between Trump’s posture and that of all others present was made plain by his hectoring speech on America First on all matters of economic relationships and trade.

His speech was an embarrassing lead balloon; directed more to his purported base in America’s rust belt than to the audience of 20 other national leaders attending the APEC Summit .  As Amber Phillips’ record shows, Trump did not know who was there or the number of them, but he told the journalists on his flight that he had: “a great relationship with every single one of them. Every person in that room today.”

In his speech, President Xi did the opposite, speaking not of “China First”, but of the fundamental importance of multilateral cooperation, and of China’s willingness to work with others. Those others, included the states supporting the proposed TPP, from which Trump withdrew the US. They agreed to develop the proposal further, without the US.

The TPP  concept  has encountered multiple difficulties, but a chief one has been US insistence on the predominance, within the partnership, of US domestic laws and remedies in the event of disputes. Presumably US withdrawal alleviates those difficulties.

With respect to the region as a whole, Chinese diplomacy would appear to have won out, again.

Trump had brief encounters, but no formal meeting with President Putin, at Da Nang. This had two results, according to what Trump said to the journalists, on Airforce One.

First, a statement of US/Russia cooperation with respect to Syria was issued. The most interesting aspect of this seemed to be implicit recognition by the US, that Russia has achieved a measure of fundamental control over further developments there; is the go to country on the future of Syria.

How bitter a pill this is, cannot be calculated, especially given current levels of Russophobia in the US and, how much this is at variance with repeatedly stated US policy objectives on the Middle East region. That policy, at least in its overt aspects, seems to have been reduced to defending Israel, hardly new, and increasing support for and arms sales to Saudi Arabia; presumably including its increasing conflict with Iran, executed, inter alia, in Yemen, Qatar, and now in Lebanon.

Secondly, in answer to journalists questions about his exchanges with Putin  (remember they are not being styled as meetings ), Trump said he had asked Putin, indeed more than once, about Russian interference in the US electoral process and then said:

“Every time he sees me, he says, ‘ I didn’t do that’ – I really believe when he tells me that, he means it… I think he’s very insulted by it, if you want to know the truth”.

It’s always enchanting to observe the author of the concept of “fake news” and countless public lies, alternative facts, to claim that truth is his guiding star.

Trump then went on to tell the journalists that the whole issue of Russian interference, is a Democrat led conspiracy, supported by some former heads of  US intelligence Agencies , whom he called “political hacks” and, the FBI – James Comey.

As in so many areas of policy and international action needed on the now very substantial agenda faced by all countries in the Asia-Pacific region. It appears that  regional States will have to reckon on seeking mutually beneficial solutions, without useful input by the US.

According to Trump’s declarations in Da Nang the US will:  pursue self- interest, indeed he recommended that all others do the same and; would see where that landed; but, would oppose, as a matter of principle, collective, multilateral actions.

Leaving aside the plain offensiveness in manner and substance, of Trump’s Da Nang declaration; his proud proclamation of selfishness dressed up as an honest declaration of independence, is simply stupid. It is now so widely recognized, everywhere, that almost all the central problems faced in today’s world are complex, widespread and, cannot be solved by individual national action, no matter how powerful the nation. Our world is now entrenched in inter-dependence and this means that international cooperation is a necessity, not simply a choice.

Trump is now back in DC and has begun immediately to declare his Asian journey a unique event, an unalloyed success.  Many sober commentators are begging to disagree. Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post  wrote: “What happens when you replace the President with a Clown” and declared the Asia trip “at times a disaster, at times a farce”.

But, its budget time and Trump and the Republicans are locked in arguments about: just how much they can cut taxes for corporations and higher income earners; how they can further cut down Obamacare; and, how to pay for the renewal and expansion of US nuclear weapon capability, for which an expenditure of $US 1.2 Trillion over the next 30 years is proposed.

Sensibly, the Senate has commenced hearings on exactly what process is employed to authorize the use of nuclear weapons. The current answer is, basically, none other than that the President just says; do it. Apparently this is not considered acceptable in the days of Trump, about whom some are actually using the term “unstable”, or worse.

Nothing occurred during his Asia tour to allay the concerns about Trump as President. Indeed they were possibly enhanced, certainly internationally and presumably domestically.

Richard Butler AC   former Ambassador to the United Nations, Diplomat in Residence at the Council on Foreign Relations, New York.

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