Could this be “The Manchurian Candidate” in real life? The 1962 movie, released at the height of the Cold War, was the story of a captured US soldier who was brainwashed to obey Soviet/Chinese orders to carry out assassinations and enable the takeover of the US government by an extreme right-wing senator aiming to be a dictator.
Now there is Donald Trump, a figure who had dealings with high-placed Russians before an election in which he was clearly, if unknowingly, helped by Russian cyber warfare. Since taking office, almost his every move has been a benefit to the two big countries challenging US global power, China and Russia.
The events of the past week have been the most dramatic illustrations of Trump’s unerring ability to help US rivals and undermine its relations with its long-term allies. First there was the G7 Summit in Canada where Trump not only refused to sign the joint communique but tweeted insults to his host, the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and left the west’s two leaders of substance, Germany’s Merkel and France’s Macron, stupefied.
Next came the Singapore show with Kim Jong-un. Treating Kim with respect was certainly a saner approach than insulting “little rocket man” or actually bombing the North’s strategic arsenal. North Korea cannot be wished away – or destroyed by sanctions so dialogue is desirable. But the event left America’s major Asian allies, Japan and South Korea, dumbfounded. Not only did Trump get nothing in return for fulfilling the Kim dynasty’s long-sought goal of a face-to-face meeting on equal terms with the US president. Trump followed up by telling a news conference that he would suspend joint exercises with South Korea. This was done without consulting Seoul or Tokyo. He also looked forward to removing US troops from Korea, an even more-alarming possibility for those countries, even if it is extremely unlikely in the near future. Trump seemed more concerned with costs than strategic issues – despite having previously made big play of increasing the US defense budget.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in had earlier initiated dialogue with the North partly out of fear that Trump’s bellicose threats to Kim could result in actual conflict, a horrendous prospect for the South. Now the South, and Japan, have reason to worry about the permanence of the US commitment to their defense and the maintenance of the nuclear umbrella.
The President also looked forward, he said, to removing US troops from Korea, an even more alarming possibility for those countries, even if it is extremely unlikely in the near future.
The hollow nature of Trump, first threatening Kim with dire consequences, then giving him the face he wanted above all, is seen as a reflection on America itself, talking big but with the instincts of a coward. Trump got his extra time on global TV, and doubtless that is worth a few votes. But the world could see that Kim was real winner. China was a winner. The losers: all US allies, led by South Korea and Japan.
Although Americans may be understandably anxious not to become involved in any more foreign misadventures as in Iraq and Afghanistan, commitments to pacts with major, stable allies are another matter. Yet the America First principle that Trump espouses clearly leaves little room for alliances other than of temporary convenience. It was evident that Trump had earlier focused on the North when its missiles apparently became capable of hitting the US itself. The fact that the South and Japan had long been within reach of missiles and nuclear devices simply showed the self-absorption of “the world’s leading power.”
Not that that is entirely new. China’s creeping takeover of the islands and shoals in the South China has been made easier by America’s exclusive focus on navigation rights rather than also a commitment to the rights of the littoral states, notably the Philippines, under the UNCLOS and China’s effective invasion of Scarborough (Panetta) shoal when President Aquino was in office. It has subsequently been used by President Duterte as excuse for not standing up to further Chinese violations of Philippine islands and waters.
America’s situation on the other side of the world is no better. Attacks on trade both with neighbors Mexico and Canada and its key allies in NATO – all of western and much of eastern Europe – have been almost as fierce as those on China. This has come at a time when Europe itself is vulnerable to enhanced dissension over immigration and economic issues, not to forget Brexit.
So instead of trying to shore up the western alliance, Trump is deliberately weakening it. In this case the main gainer is Vladimir Putin’s Russia – which Trump wants invited back into the G7.
All this puts into the shade the more general global contempt for Trump’s refusal to acknowledge the importance of addressing climate change. Thus the “leader of the free world” is seen to be snubbing the world to please his know-nothing voters, coal interests and anti-science hordes of Christian fundamentalists. Much the same can be said for his rejection of the Iran nuclear deal to please the same groups plus the racists and Islamic and Jewish fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia and nuclear-armed Israel.
Quite where Trump’s new tolerance of Kim’s nuclear weapons leaves his policy on Iran, which is still a long way from having a nuclear weapon, remains to be seen. But for now, at least he is angering his western allies and bringing a smile to the face of Iran’s most powerful neighbor, Putin’s Russia. This has the added downside of irritating India, which sees Iran as a friend and important trade partner. Indian disquiet has made Prime Minister Narendra Modi back off, at least for now, looking for closer US ties to counter China’s naval build-up.
The trail of Trump wreckage is nowhere compensated by improvements in US standing. Not in Africa, not in Latin America, not in Australasia. Peoples and their leaders can get over Trump’s tantrums and petty insults but they do reflect some fundamental changes in US attitudes and hence its global role. Instead of taking on the challenge of a rising China it is retreating into itself.
How otherwise can one explain the muted reactions of the pillars of establishment Washington? Be they in the Senate, the Defense Department, the Treasury or the State Department to the slaughter of old policies and alliances without replacement by anything even half coherent? The silence is deafening. Although much of the establishment will quietly resist Trumpism and do its best to make amends for his excesses, much of the damage to US influence – not just image – has already been done. That Trump is often hard to treat seriously is serious itself. The scriptwriters of Hollywood could not have conceived of a such a plot with Putin and Xi Jinping as the evil masterminds.