“Get me outta here.”
At the recent G20 meeting in Argentina, Donald Trump was on the world’s stage when he muttered this aside to an aide. He was supposed to be getting ready for a photo op with the other global leaders at the conclusion of the meeting. And, after some confusion, Trump eventually did come back to pose for the group shot.
But the unscripted utterance perfectly captured the United States in the world today. With all eyes on him, the leader of the free world wandered away from the spotlight, whining like a six-year-old upstaged at his own birthday party. Trump, who lambastes his counterparts for being “weak,” was publicly incapable of manning up even when the stakes were so low. This is what passes for U.S. “leadership” at the moment.
The moment also illustrates Trump’s paradox. He wants to be at the center of everything. And he wants to be teleported out of these international confabs as soon as possible. Psychologically speaking, this all-in, all-out approach corresponds to the publicly arrogant and privately insecure temperament of a world-class narcissist. It would all make for an amusing Dr. Phil show — if it didn’t have such a profound impact on global affairs.
No doubt there were millions of people around the world who nodded their heads along with Trump at that moment: “Please, dear god, get him outta there. And send him somewhere he can’t do anyone any harm.”
The Sound of One Hand Clapping
The president scored a success at the G20 meeting comparable to the success his party enjoyed in the mid-term elections. That is, the success was mostly in his own mind.
The assembled world leaders drafted a statement that demonstrated exactly how far out of tune with the global chorus the Trump administration is on multilateralism. Everyone else, for instance, agreed on the urgent threat of climate change.
Signatories to the Paris Agreement, who have also joined the Hamburg Action Plan, reaffirm that the Paris Agreement is irreversible and commit to its full implementation, reflecting common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in light of different national circumstances. We will continue to tackle climate change, while promoting sustainable development and economic growth.
Weak, but clear: like watered-down consommé. Then comes the fly in the soup, a brazen declaration of American exceptionalism:
The United States reiterates its decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, and affirms its strong commitment to economic growth and energy access and security, utilizing all energy sources and technologies, while protecting the environment.
I suspect that Trump sees the inclusion of such language as a great victory. But the United States failed to persuade any other country of its position. It only managed to clearly identify the gulf between Trump and everyone else.
Indeed, Trump has failed to have any real impact on the conduct of international affairs. He has only functioned like an unwitting global matchmaker, pushing a diverse set of countries into each other’s arms: Europe and Iran, Pakistan and China, even Russia and Saudi Arabia.
In fact, the defining image of this year’s G20 meeting was Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman exchanging high-fives. It was as if they were congratulating each other for winning gold medals in the triathlon (infiltration, assassination, cover-up) at the recent Pariah Olympics. Having defended these autocrats’ version of the truth on a number of occasions, Trump probably felt left out of the celebration. Scorned by democratic leaders, the president feels more at home with the rogues, though his advisors know that such optics are not good.
But it was perhaps the first line of the G20 statement that illustrated the largest gulf between America and the G19: “We renew our commitment to work together to improve a rules-based international order that is capable of effectively responding to a rapidly changing world.”
That would seem to be an uncontroversial statement. But the U.S. delegation reportedly objected to “rules-based international order.” Really? Really?! National Security Advisor John Bolton, who was pulling strings behind the scenes, obviously prefers “lawless national chaos.” Fortunately, the G19 held firm in its insistence that the world is not flat.
Meanwhile, since Bolton is not available to fill Nikki Haley’s shoes at the UN, Trump has only one candidate left who shares the same anarchic vision of the world: The Joker. But with the Mueller investigation closing in on Trump’s inner circle, perhaps even The Joker doesn’t want his reputation tarnished through association with this administration.
Messing with China
Trump canceled his meeting with Putin at the G20 gathering. He cancelled his press conference. He mangled his chat with Argentine President Mauricio Macri. He often looked the odd man out.
But all of that just represented the awkward preliminaries before the main event: dinner with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. These one-on-one discussions with autocrats are where Trump really shines. He has built up the trade conflict with China as if it were a championship wrestling match. And this dinner had just as much false drama as a wrestling showdown.
Trump declared the agreement coming out of the meeting a great victory for U.S. farmers and auto manufacturers. In reality, the two sides only agreed to a truce: a 90-day period of further negotiations to head off the tariffs both sides have declared on each other’s goods. Since Trump seems not to know the difference between a tariff and an interest rate — according to a recent Wall Street Journal interview — his belief in his own success might be genuine. He might even believe that a complex trade deal with China can be worked out in 90 days.
What he can’t fail to understand, however, is that U.S. manufacturing is disappearing right beneath his feet. GM’s shuttering of several U.S. plants, on the heels of Ford’s comparable “reorganization,” is going to hit voters in Trump country hard. If Chinese tariffs go into effect, the auto industry projects a loss of over 700,000 jobs.
More significantly, the economic relationship between Washington and Beijing has been irrevocably rattled by Trump’s game of chicken. China is sourcing its needs from places other than the unpredictable United States (sorry, Iowa soybean farmers!). It is lessening its dependency on U.S. technology with an ambitious Made in China 2025 program that will put Chinese companies at the forefront of innovation. And the United States is facilitating all that by devising new controls on technology exports to China.
It’s not just that Trump is playing checkers against China’s chess grandmasters. He’s also using nineteenth century tools like tariffs to win a twenty-first century economic game.
As the recent G20 meeting underscored, world leaders are still walking on eggshells around Trump as if he has real power. But once it becomes clear that the president is in genuine political trouble — with voters, with Congress, with special investigators, and ultimately with his own political party — then they’re going to abandon all the false deference. They’re going to let him twist in the wind.
And when he whimpers “get me outta here,” the G19 will simply sit back and enjoy the spectacle.
Foreign Policy In Focus, December 4, 2018