U.S. President Donald Trump wrapped up the most successful diplomatic mission of his presidency, restarting stalled trade talks with China and reviving denuclearization negotiations in a historic first visit to North Korea.
Or perhaps not. Instead, Trump may have sold out vital U.S. interests for the sake of Twitter bragging rights and photo ops with authoritarian rulers like China's Xi Jinping and North Korea's Kim Jong Un.
The maddening situation for U.S. allies, and for multinational companies, trying to navigate the reversals of U.S. trade and security policy is that it is impossible to know which of these versions is true. Does the world's most powerful leader actually speak for the interests of the United States? Or only his own? And what, anyway, is he trying to do?
Any answer must start from the premise that Trump wields extraordinary power. On trade, he can threaten or withdraw tariffs against any country for whatever reason he wishes. Just last month (June), he said he would walk away from his own trade deal with Mexico and impose new tariffs because he was annoyed that Mexico was not doing more to stop Central American migrants reaching the U.S. border. He could, with a quick tap on his Twitter feed, slap tariffs on all automotive imports to the U.S. Congress could stop him, but has so far shown no willingness to do so.
His military power is more formidable still. As commander-in-chief, he ordered a strike last month against Iran as retaliation for Iran's downing of a U.S. spy drone, and then called off the mission 10 minutes before the missiles were set to be launched.
So Donald Trump cannot be ignored. But neither does it makes sense to analyze his every move as part of some broader strategic vision. On China, for example, the White House's own December 2017 National Security Strategy—issued under Trump's signature—labels China as a "strategic competitor." But at his Osaka news conference following the G-20 summit, on June 28-29, Trump was asked point blank by a Chinese reporter whether he considers China a partner, competitor or enemy. He responded by saying "we are going to be strategic partners."
On trade, an interests-driven president would have insisted that China offer some concessions that offered a way forward to conclude the difficult bilateral negotiations. Instead, Trump agreed to delay additional tariffs and restart the talks without preconditions. He further sweetened the deal by offering to ease sanctions on China's telecoms giant, Huawei Technologies, even though his own security officials believe that Huawei must be isolated, and are pressing U.S. allies to cut off business with the company. When serious U.S. negotiators like U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer re-engage, there is no reason to believe the two sides will be any closer to a deal than they were when talks broke off in May.
With North Korea, an interests-driven president would have insisted on tangible concessions from Kim, such as a suspension of missile tests, as a precondition for the huge symbolic honor of meeting the U.S. president on North Korean soil. Instead, Trump set up the meeting at the last minute as a Twitter date, and grinned as the North Korean leader invited "your excellency" to step across the border in the DMZ. While denuclearization talks will now resume, there is again no reason to expect anything substantive to be produced.
When President Richard Nixon went to China in 1972, it was a historic U.S. gesture to reopen relations with the communist regime and launched a new era in U.S.-China relations. When President Donald Trump went to North Korea over the weekend, he met his buddy Kim for a photo op. Nothing else changed.
From this mess of diplomatic theater of the absurd, what should the rest of the world conclude? Unfortunately, it cannot be laughed off as simply the latest installment of the Trump Show. Other countries with serious leaders must make real decisions on how to react.
The safest bet is that, with plenty of lurches, interests will win out. That means both the larger strategic interests of the United States, and the perennial interest of first-term U.S. presidents in getting reelected.
Strategically, the U.S. and China are the world's two most powerful countries, with fundamentally different economic and political systems. Growing competition is inevitable. The United States will continue with policies aimed at thwarting China's rise as an economic and technological equal. There will likely be a few more trade truces on the way, but the underlying conflict will remain. U.S. sanctions against Huawei, for example, may be intermittent, but the United States will not permit Huawei's equipment to become the heart of the next generation telecoms network.
The same is true on North Korea. The north's nuclear capability poses a genuine threat to the United States. Security analysts say it continues to build nuclear bombs. Whatever the personal bonhomie between Trump and Kim, the United States will continue to take steps to minimize that threat, including close military cooperation with South Korea.
Again, confidence here should be well short of 100%. Trump scaled back U.S.-South Korea military exercises earlier this year in a gesture of good will to Kim. He has called into question even bedrock U.S. alliance commitments such as NATO. He told Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last week that he wants a renegotiation of the 68-year-old U.S.-Japan treaty that grants the U.S. military basing rights in Japan in exchange for a commitment to defend Japan against any attack.
Trump's own reelection interests also suggest—but do not guarantee—a more cautious path. More often than not, his modus has been to threaten actions such as tariffs or military strikes, and then back down. That keeps him in the headlines without taking actions that might do real economic damage to the United States and harm his 2020 reelection campaign.
But the record is inconsistent. He has used tariffs in unexpected ways and may do so again. And he could be tripped up by the actions of other countries. Had Mexico responded to his tariff threat with indignation, for example, rather than a meek willingness to concede, would Trump have felt compelled to act? What if China continues to take a hard line in the next round of negotiations? And Trump has lurched on North Korea between the current warm friendship and "fire and fury;" it is easy to imagine North Korean actions that could tip the balance back again.
All of this creates the most unpredictable international environment in decades. The U.S. president has become the disrupter-in-chief. The rest of the world has little choice but to pay close attention and try not to get hurt.