President Donald Trump's trip to the G20 summit in Japan last week did not improve America's influence and or national security. Aside from gracing some of the world's biggest despots with photo opportunities, Trump made no serious headway on trade or regional tensions, and he all but encouraged Russia to continue its crackdown on dissent and interference in U.S. elections.
The right script should have been easy to follow. The unpopularity at home of Trump's trade war with China should have pushed the president and his counterpart, Xi Jinping, to seek a breakthrough in an impasse that threatens to reshuffle the global economic order. Trump had an opportunity to rebuke Putin for Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election, and he had a chance to send a strong message to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia for the murder of Washington Post columnist and American resident Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Instanbul, Turkey, in October.
But the Unite States gained nothing of substance. Trump and Xi agreed to resume trade talks that had broken down, averting for now new tit-for-tat tariffs. But the temporary cease-fire - while a momentary relief to financial markets, businesses and consumers - shows no sign of progress in addressing core U.S. complaints, including Chinese subsidies for home-grown industries. The truce merely kicks the issue down the road, giving the two leaders a face-saving moment but continuing the global economic uncertainty.
Trump used his meeting with Putin to share the Russian president's hostility to the press and to make light of the findings by U.S. intelligence and special counsel Robert Mueller that Moscow interfered in the 2016 presidential election with the intent to help the Trump campaign. "Get rid of them," Trump mused, as reporters and photographers gathered to record the meeting — the worst possible statement a president could make to the leader of a country where journalists have been killed and imprisoned for doing their jobs. Putin is so buoyed by the far-right nationalist movements inspired by Trump that he declared in an interview Friday that the world's liberal political order — which promotes democracy, human rights and press freedoms — had "outlived its purpose." It fell to the president of the European Union to retort that what is obsolete "are authoritarianism, personality cults and the rule of oligarchs."
Even Trump's surprise meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on North Korean soil was another concession to America's adversaries. The two agreed to restart negotiations over limiting North Korea's nuclear program. That certainly didn't require a presidential visit that only underscored Kim's authority at home and legitimacy abroad. And Trump is more beholden to Kim now that the dictator has dangled the prospect of a nuclear deal in the run-up to Trump's reelection.
Trump couldn't even resist a parting shot at his G20 host, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan. Trump announced the United States should consider revisiting the 68-year-old Japanese-American security treaty, which he called an unfair burden on the United States. But that agreement is a bedrock of America's relations with Japan that gives the United States a key security presence in the region. Raising the issue as Trump did was a humiliating slap to an essential ally.
This president and his administration continues to test the patience of the nation's strongest allies, curry favor with its most dangerous adversaries and add to the state of confusion and uncertainty in an already tumultuous world.