President Trump Heads Home Having Hurt the United States Abroad

 | Nov 13, 2017 | 10:00 AM EST
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President Donald Trump concludes his long Asia tour on Tuesday, having added a day to his trip so he can attend a meeting of the leaders of the Southeast Asian nations, the 10 nations represented in ASEAN.

He has delivered in person the message he made on the campaign trail that he would remove the United States from as many of the agreements it has entered or signed as possible. This isn't so much putting America first, as he claims, but making it stand alone. Isolated. Aloof.

No one in Asia is begging him to hang around. There have been a few business deals repeated that were already in the works, and China has promised vaguely to liberalize its finance industry, allowing foreign companies greater investment and operational access. But basically everyone watched, listened, heard Trump say he wants to go it alone -- and then got on with business.

The clearest sign that the world is moving on without him came over the weekend, as the 11 remaining members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership said they have committed to proceeding with the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Canada almost torpedoed the deal at the last minute, and New Zealand also threatened to walk away during the prep work in Japan before negotiating terms it felt suited its agenda. But the announcement made during the APEC summit in Danang, Vietnam, indicated it will go ahead in some shape or form.

The new deal would have to be signed off again by each member nation, and ratified. The TPP will then still be the world's largest free-trade bloc. It's also likely that nations such as South Korea, the Philippines and Thailand will join after the implementation of the pact, which has taken on the cumbersome moniker the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Trump chose to make an address indicating he will insist on withdrawing from global trade deals at a body, APEC, designed for that specific purpose. So his message could not be more clear.

It's unambiguous. He said before he left on his two-week Asia tour -- the longest by a U.S. president in a quarter of a century -- that "every" trade deal the United States has ever signed is "disastrous." And he wants to tear them all up.

Trump would like every individual nation the world over to negotiate bilateral, one-on-one trade deals with the United States. This, he surely feels, will put the United States in a powerful negotiating position with any other economy.

Size clearly matters to Trump, hence what some see as his excessive flattery of Chinse President Xi Jinping during his stay in Beijing. And he hopes to use U.S. brawn, the weight of the world's largest economy, to push through better terms.

It won't work. Either he is dumb, or is playing dumb. It doesn't much matter.

In a Tweet during his stay in Beijing, he repeated his statement, made during a joint speech with Xi, that he does not "blame China" for making the most of its opportunity granted by previous administrations to "take advantage of the U.S."

In the Tweet, he said this has happened "leading up to a point where the U.S. is losing $100s of billions."

This is just flat out wrong. By U.S. government calculations, U.S. companies lose $300 billion in intellectual-property theft and copyright violations every year. If this is what he is referring to, he may have a point.

But it forgets that American companies have been making billions through trade with China, let alone the rest of Asia. Trump makes it sound as though the United States is "losing" money by doing business with every nation with which it has an existing trade deal. This is surely what he means to imply (while his staff may introduce the * about U.S. IP theft if they're called out on how wrong this is).

A trade deficit does not mean that the United States is "losing" anything. It means more capital or cash is moving in one direction than the other. That's it. "Deficit" does not mean "loss," as in the opposite of a profit.

U.S. companies that invest in and build overseas factories, for instance, add to the U.S. deficit by doing so. But this investment gives U.S. companies an overseas asset that benefits from cheap labor and makes money to send back home.

The U.S. company is in this instance the boss. It is hiring foreign workers at rates lower than they would have to pay at home. It is making goods at a rate that's more-profitable than otherwise possible. If the U.S. company is "losing" in this example, well, I don't know what winning is.

But Trump continues to insist that the United States is losing money due to globalization and global trade. Last time I checked, the United States remains the world's biggest economy by some margin. It's not losing too badly. The red ink isn't flowing. In fact, U.S. stocks and corporate profits are at record highs.

Trump is doing his country a disservice by pretending everyone is hurting it. Actually, China has perennially painted itself as a victim, taken advantage of by foreign powers for centuries, forced into unfair trade treaties, invaded, the inventor of (I've heard) everything from pasta to soccer -- ideas that by implication were stolen and implemented elsewhere.

To see China take an assertive place in which it feels successful at home and abroad is a sea change. To see China supplant the U.S. position of leadership on globalization, multilateral trade, climate change and numerous other issues is sad.

I'm all for China demonstrating leadership and shedding its inferiority complex. But I wish the United States would play along instead of shrinking into its shell, a husk of its former self. Not a superpower. Only a power in its back yard.

Trump can pull the United States out of every single multination deal it has ever signed. He wants to tear up NAFTA. He may ultimately pull the United States out of the WTO, the United Nations, both of which he has belittled. He's heading in that direction.

But he is deluded if he thinks this means everyone will stop what they're doing, withdraw themselves from the same such deals and organizations, and come on their knees to U.S. shores begging for two-way trade. They'll just get on with what they were already doing, without the United States.

The Brits are already learning this with Brexit. What if we play really hardball on this Brexit deal? What if we hold out and just don't sign a deal? What, you mean Europe will just keep on going?

Oh.

The TPP will go ahead without U.S. participation, and it will be a strong trading bloc. It would have been even better with the United States on board, but it'll still be the biggest trade pact in the history of the world. Not too shabby.

Withdrawing the United States from, well, everything puts the United States last. Or maybe nowhere. Irrelevant. Out of mind.

The two weeks are up. It's time for Trump to take his ball and go home. Does the game end? No. The United States simply stops scoring in it anymore. 

Let's hope he eventually sees the sense of joining in once again.

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