OSAKA – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe goes to Washington next week to become the second world leader to meet new U.S. President Donald Trump. He would be well advised, as the old saying goes, to sup with a long spoon — meaning to keep a careful distance — from him.
Abe himself says he’s looking forward to “a candid exchange of views on the economy and security issues as a whole.” I hope he is not deluding himself into thinking that Trump is a “strong leader” with whom he can do business. He may, secretly, admire Trump’s tough extreme vetting of immigrants, or hope that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s emergence as Trump’s new best buddy may give Japan hope of recovering the disputed islands off Hokkaido.
Dream on, Abe. Trump’s rise to power represents economic, political and diplomatic, and geopolitical challenges for the rest of the world, in which Japan is highly vulnerable. Challenges always offer opportunities too, but I have grave doubts whether Abe is the man who can lead Japan to the sort of change needed to face a new world.
Indeed, Abe had better beware of being “Trumpled,” a portmanteau emerging from “trampled by Trump.” It is a risk that other leaders playing hitherto conventional politics also face.
Japan is particularly ill-prepared to handle the fury and storm that is Trump. On a purely bilateral level, he has already laid down opening barrages on trade and military spending, in both of which he’s demanding that Japan must pay up. Trump is not interested in free trade but in “fair trade,” by which he means a deal that is fair to him, where he comes out the winner.
Pundits and commentators have consistently underestimated the force-13 hurricane fury of Trump, claiming that he did not mean what he said in his campaign rants, that he would become “more presidential,” and that the majesty of sitting in the White House would produce a sense of awe that would moderate his views.
Far from it: In his inaugural address, Trump thumped out his determination to “Make America Great Again.” He showed little of the grace or eloquence of his predecessors as he let out an angry patriotic roar for the days when the United States was the undisputed top dog in manufacturing, wealth and power.
In his first days in office, Trump has swept away key pillars of the old order by executive fiat, mostly without consulting members of his Cabinet.
In between, besides changing the curtains in the Oval Office to his trademark glistening gold, he took time to attack the media for not seeing hundreds of thousands of invisible people who were really occupying the empty spaces at his inauguration, and for not counting 3 to 5 million fraudulent voters who had denied him victory in the popular vote for the presidency, where he trailed Hillary Clinton by 2.8 million votes.
If Trump carries out the foreign policies he has promised, the already fragile global geopolitical, economic, trade and environment system will be devastated. At the very least, economic progress that many developing countries have made will be threatened as America turns inward and protectionist.
Trump poses immense dangers to planet Earth itself. His professed policies risk subjecting the world to a slow suffocating death as he disregards international climate change treaties and encourages a new carbon economy. Or it could suffer a fiery death in war as Trump destroys old alliances and promotes an aggressive nationalism that could escalate dangerously.
This is all too apocalyptic. But Trump’s policies themselves are apocalyptic.
Trump’s way of changing the world is equally dangerous. He continues to behave like a real estate mogul, cajoling, hectoring, bullying and shaming rivals or clients to grovel to get his way in what he sees as a zero-sum world.
There is an old expression “cometh the hour, cometh the man,” predicting that a crisis will produce a leader capable of responding to the dangerous times. Sadly, it is hard to find world leaders with the courage to challenge Trump in the name of the fragile Earth. Leaders of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, quick to give their opinions on Brexit, on the threats from disease and other crises, have been silent, perhaps fearful of upsetting their largest shareholder, the U.S.
There is talk of Trump getting together with best friend Putin to carve up the 21st century world as U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill divided the postwar world at Yalta. Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, is sufficiently worried as to list Trump’s protectionist U.S. along with Russian aggression, radical Islamic terrorism and civil wars in the Middle East, and European xenophobic populist movements, as the biggest dangers facing the European Union.
Some commentators suggest that Trump might seek his biggest deal to bring China in to a triumvirate to control the world. On the surface this seems unlikely, not least because of Trump’s strident claims that China has stolen America’s jobs and sapped the strength of U.S. industry, and his condemnation of Beijing’s island-building in the South China Sea.
China’s President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang have both spoken up for the global commons. But to be a true world leader, Beijing would have to throw off centuries of history of the Middle Kingdom accustomed to see neighbors as vassal states paying tribute. It would require China to join forces with other leaders in Asia and Europe in asserting Earth’s overriding needs.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel understands the need for global wisdom, but she and other European leaders are threatened by populist parties, encouraged by Trump and Putin, who would happily break up the EU.
Japan has been a great beneficiary of the peace and economic progress since World War II. But Abe’s sights are set on a deal with Trump and rewriting history, rather than seeking allies who could make common cause in keeping the world — including the U.S. itself, which would suffer from protectionism — open and safe against Trump’s threats.
The important point is that Trump is wrong: The fragile Earth of the 21st century needs leaders with global, not greedy nationalistic, solutions for our common problems. If Abe fails to understand this, he does so at his — and Japan’s — peril.
Kevin Rafferty worked for the World Bank and reported from Washington under six presidents.