© LEON TEOH
The American president hasn’t just turned his back on and disparaged his country’s strongest allies — he embraced one of its worst sworn enemies.
By Gary Grappo / 06.13.2018
Legend has it that in 1781, at the formal surrender ceremony following George Washington and the American revolutionaries’ decisive defeat of the British Army under Lord General Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia, the British Army band struck up the now famous — or perhaps infamous for some — ballad. Britain was the global power of the time. Yet, it had been defeated by a ragtag army of farmers, merchants and shop-owners led by a handful of professional soldiers. America has been turning the world upside down ever since.
In 1945, following a half-century of world wars, the Great Depression, a genocide, a holocaust and a run of revolutions on several continents, America helped turn the world right side up, bringing together nations to establish a rules-based, international order to ensure peace, stability and prosperity. Now joined by well over 100 nations, that effort has largely lived up to its potential, though not without hardship and challenges. The one constant that the world could count on — nearly always — for those nearly 75 years was that America would be there to stand for stability, peace, human rights, free trade and the rules-based order.
Strike up the band again! Donald Trump’s America appears to be upending that — and in the span of less than one week. Trump first dissed America’s closest allies and best friends at the G-7 Summit in Ottawa, including France, which had dispatched its navy and army to fight with the Americans at Yorktown. They also include Britain and Canada — yes, even Canada — as well as post-World War II allies Germany, Japan and Italy. The world was left aghast.
Days later in Singapore, he met with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, leader of the world’s best known pariah state. There Trump employed his self-touted dealmaker skills to schmooze, cajole and even pander to the world’s most brutal dictator. Granted, his objective was vital and even noble — to denuclearize the unpredictable and threatening Hermit Kingdom. But following a meeting of less than two hours, including a 45-minute one-on-session, he announced “a very special bond with Kim” and even declared, “I do trust him, yeah.”
The American president didn’t just turn his back on and disparage his country’s strongest allies; he embraced one of its worst sworn enemies. Following Ottawa, Trump went into attack mode, tweeting that the US gets “unfairly clobbered” on trade despite “protecting Europe at great financial loss.” Then in Singapore, when pressed by one journalist at the post-meeting press conference about trust and verification of Kim’s denuclearization pledge (lavishly praised by Trump), the president seemed to shrug it off. “Can you ensure anything?” America won’t trust its best friends to settle trade differences, but it can accept the pledge of an avowed enemy to eliminate its nuclear weapons. Sorry Mr. Reagan, “trust, but verify” is just old-style diplomacy. Now America has a president who “alone can fix it.”
For imagined and contrived offenses Trump and his administration admonish friends who are members of vital security alliances with the US and enjoy top ratings for their human rights records. But for the man who violated all international laws to produce and amass dozens of nuclear weapons, executed his uncle by firing squad, ordered a murder-for-hire hit on his half-brother and operates gulags across the country for an estimated 80,000 to 130,000 citizens for offenses against the “dear respected comrade” he has a “special bond” and anoints him “honorable.”
He wasn’t done either. In his meeting with Kim, Trump promised to suspend joint US-South Korean exercises, a cornerstone of the US-South Korean defense alliance. The offer to Kim was neither agreed nor discussed with America’s two staunchest allies in the Western Pacific, Japan and South Korea. (It was a really bad week for Japan, first the gut punch in Ottawa followed by the sucker punch in Singapore.) Yet, one of Trump’s many criticisms of his predecessor’s nuclear deal with Iran in 2015 was that then-President Barack Obama had failed to adequately consult with and receive input from US allies, i.e., the Gulf States and Israel. His apparently spontaneous offer to Kim flies in the face of his earlier reproaches of Obama.
Trump’s supporters assert that the American people voted for him to “shake things up.” Starting with their revolution, Americans are not averse to shaking things up; it’s in their DNA. But the shaking mustn’t mean destroying, wiping the chessboard clean with nothing to replace it. It must be accompanied by shaping things up, too. That is presenting a strategy for genuinely addressing challenges. Trump has the shaking part but so far none of the shaping.
He cannot turn the world upside down and then fail to offer a replacement strategy for ensuring core interests of his country and of others — peace, security, stability and economic prosperity — and core values of liberty, democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights are preserved. For that, it isn’t only American policies and actions that are necessary. As the pre-1945 era tragically demonstrated, America needs allies and friends to stand with it in pursuit of these shared goals.
Some may proffer that Trump does have an alternative strategy. It’s called “America First.” He’s not outlined exactly what that includes. But more important, he and his supporters must understand what it means. First, this approach will place the US on the same level of other self-serving great and near-great powers, most especially China and Russia, and also would-be challengers like Iran and even Turkey. Second, in such a scenario the world enters into a new era of great power rivalry and competition for greater control — political, economic and military — as occurred in the late-19th and early 20th centuries. Third, the great powers then seek and recruit smaller states to form respective spheres of influence and then wait for opportunities to cleave off portions of a rival’s sphere.
The US, isolated geographically in North America, will be at a disadvantage. The rules-based order — the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, the International Criminal Court and other recognized international and regional bodies currently in place to resolve conflict — will have little sway. The scenario leads to inevitable conflict as it did with the First and Second World Wars. Only in the early 21st century, the great powers — and even lesser ones — have nuclear, chemical, biological and cyber weapons never imagined in the early 20th.
FAREWELL TO FRIENDS
“America First” becomes America “alone.” That cannot be in its own or the international community’s interests. Yet Trump seems to be turning his back on America’s allies and best friends, those we typically turn to first in a crisis or conflict for support and consultation. Instead, he embraces the world’s best known dictators, autocrats and potentates: North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte.
Trump can’t be faulted for wanting to address trade imbalances that may disadvantage the US and American workers. But must he villainize governments that hold the same interests and values as the US? Neither can he be faulted for reaching out to Kim. It was a strategic necessity as is diplomacy with all real and perceived adversaries. But must he embrace and exalt him and others who represent all that the US has stood against since its founding? Are these to be America’s new friends and allies?
The shaking up is easiest. It’s the shaping up — the formulating of strategies, the securing of allies and the actual building — that is the most difficult. And in that, Trump is showing precious little capacity. His country and the world are the worse for it.