Any American president’s first foreign foray attracts attention. Who will be honored with the first visit? Who will be implicitly snubbed? Given the interest in Donald Trump’s idiosyncratic, troubled presidency, interest is even greater than usual as we struggle to make sense of an administration seemingly in permanent crisis.
The fact that US President Donald Trump chose Saudi Arabia for his first stop is a powerful signal about his priorities and the reality of his famously “transactional” approach to foreign policy. Uncomfortable questions about human rights were suitably trumped by the desire to clinch a US$110 billion arms deal.
True, there was much talk about the Middle East’s need to confront terrorism, but no mention of the Saudis’ well-documented role in exporting a particularly virulent form of Wahhabism. The new form of “principled realism” Trump invoked emphasizes seeking “partners not perfection.”
This sounds very like the sort of rhetoric successive American administrations adopted during the Cold War. The United States justified propping up authoritarian leaders in Africa, Asia and Latin America because the alternative – communism – was judged to be much worse. Questions about human rights and democracy were expediently put on the back burner.
Actions, as they say, speak louder than words – especially from one of the world’s most prolific and impulsive communicators
Even though Trump’s next stop – Israel – is a bona fide democracy, they have their own troubling human rights questions to confront. Despite Trump’s bluster about his ability to find a solution to the decades-long confrontation between Israel and the dispossessed Palestinians, he is unlikely to succeed where so many others have failed.
What lessons can policymakers in Asia draw from Trump’s first tour? First and most obviously, Asia is not on the itinerary. Despite the fact that Asia is arguably of far greater long-term strategic and especially economic significance to the US, Trump chose to ignore the world’s most populous region on his first excursion.
Actions, as they say, speak louder than words – especially from one of the world’s most prolific and impulsive communicators. To be fair, Trump has met Japenese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and even Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, but they have all had to trek to Washington to gain an audience. It is not clear when the favor will be returned.
And yet perhaps this doesn’t matter as much as it might at other times. After all, the big message from Trump’s first trip is that he values results more than principles. He’s clearly prepared to work with anyone, no matter what their politics or values may be, as long as they can help him achieve his goals, be they strategic or economic.
A number of regimes around the Asia-Pacific region may take a good deal of comfort from this possibility. No longer will interactions with the historical standard-bearer of democracy and liberalism be accompanied by tedious lectures about the need for political and economic reform. This will be music to the ears of authoritarian leaders from Bangkok to Beijing.
Even for some of the region’s more liberal elites, the idea that the US will adopt a less hectoring, more business-like approach to foreign policy may not be unwelcome. But whether this is will be applauded by Asia’s increasingly well-educated, aspirational middle classes is another question.
Political liberalism and emancipation still look like attractive ideas for many in the region. Democracy and equal opportunity may not be inevitable or even more significant than development in the short term, but that doesn’t make them unimportant or irrelevant either. If for no other reason, democracy and development are important because of their positive correlation with peace and stability.
Which brings us back to Trump and his support for heavily armed, repressive regimes. Selling advanced weapons systems to despotic regimes may generate a few jobs at home, but it is unlikely to guarantee stability. On the contrary, the one thing we know about arms races is that they generally end badly, to say nothing of being an appalling waste of money in the meantime.
Constructive American engagement with the world can still be a force for good, if only in the sense of emancipatory social reform. Without someone trying to articulate a positive story about the prospects for peaceful reform and even progress, we may be headed for dark times indeed.