You have probably read and watched more about the recent bilateral summit between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump than anyone but a masochist should have to bear. However, there were some precious moments to savor.
A welcoming bear hug had Abe looking a tad uncomfortable, but that was nothing compared to Trump’s signature handshake where he squeezes hard and pulls his reluctant counterpart into a long and uncomfortable clinch. It is one of those stupid Beavis and Butthead stunts that he pulls all the time, a macho mash that looks buffoonish. Abe finally managed to extricate himself while giving an eye roll that said, “Who is this clown?” And when Abe was speaking in Japanese, Trump nodded along as if he understood even though he was not wearing an earpiece for the translation, showing that he doesn’t really care what anyone else says.
The social media had a field day at Trump’s expense, but he seems immune to embarrassment. After all, this is a president who went out of his way to publicly humiliate a close ally, hanging up on Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull for raising uncomfortable questions.
Trump’s constituency may not have voted him into office for his diplomatic skills, but he is a national embarrassment who invites ridicule rather than respect. Instead of a honeymoon, the inexperienced Trump has lurched from one blunder to the next, punctuated by gaffes and scandals. It’s hard to imagine 200-plus more weeks of this carnival sideshow.
Pity poor Abe who is desperate to make the alliance work no matter what. He became the first world leader to rush to Trump Tower to congratulate the president-elect last November, a craven gesture that demonstrated just how much anxiety candidate Trump sowed with his jingoistic “American First” rhetoric and Japan-bashing. Abe earned brownie points by telling the world Trump is trustworthy, something most world leaders found hard to swallow, thus giving him a veneer of credibility he craved and lacked.
Yet even after assuming the presidency, Trump was tossing brickbats at Japan over trade imbalances and currency manipulation while slamming Toyota.
Trump was supposed to grow into the job, shed all that campaign posturing and emerge as a leader. However, the president is still vilifying the media, sending peevish tweets and conjuring conspiracies that expose him as the same blowhard he was when running for office.
Team Abe breathed a collective sigh of relief after Defense Secretary James Mattis visited in early February and offered reassurances about the U.S. commitment to defend Japan and even praised it as a model for other nations hosting U.S. bases. After months of worrying that Trump would demand Japan pay more toward defraying the costs of the U.S. military presence, Mattis’s comments were a welcome development, suggesting that adult supervision is beginning to marginalize ill-informed amateurs.
Both Trump and Abe needed the recent summit to succeed and this outcome was carefully orchestrated. Trump was reeling from self-inflicted wounds, scandals implicating close aides and a judicial rebuke of his travel ban on Muslims. Increasingly, his administration appears to be in disarray and he has reinforced perceptions that he is dangerously erratic and in over his head. The summit was his attempt to hit the reset button on his fumbling early days and on U.S. foreign policy toward Asia.
While Abe headed for Washington, Trump chatted with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The price of that phone call was Trump adhering to the “one-China” policy he publicly repudiated in December, a pragmatic capitulation that shows Trump can learn from his mistakes. This is an encouraging sign given all the learning opportunities he gives himself.
Abe achieved his goal of sending Beijing and Pyongyang a message that the U.S. alliance is robust. North Korea was unimpressed, testing a ballistic missile while Abe and Trump were in Florida, where Trump tersely stated that the U.S. is 100 percent behind Japan.
There was no criticism on trade imbalances or currency manipulation and Abe refrained from criticizing Trump for pulling the plug on the Trans-Pacific Partnership or his Muslim travel ban. Given Japan’s poor record on refugees, accepting just 28 in 2016, what could Abe say about the refugee freeze?
Trump said they have good chemistry, but oddly suggested that might change. Problematically, Abe’s desperation is palpable and Trump could take advantage of that in ways that would roil relations; a recent Yomiuri poll indicated that 84 percent of Japanese think Trump is bad news.
Abe understands Trumps needy narcissism and nasty reaction to any criticism or slight. President John F. Kennedy famously said, “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Trump’s version for world leaders now is: “Do not ask what America can do for you, but figure out real fast what you can do for America, or else.”
Abe came bearing gifts, promising Japanese investments would generate 700,000 jobs in the U.S. Moreover, now we know who will pay for the notorious wall on the Mexican border — Japanese taxpayers. The Government Pension Investment Fund announced that it would be investing in U.S. infrastructure bonds.
So Abe and Trump, not Donny and Shin just yet, agreed that dealing with North Korean nuclear weapons and abduction of Japanese national is important, that the rule of law should prevail in the places where China is challenging the status quo, enhance cooperation between South Korea, Japan and the U.S., and that Henoko is the only option for replacing the U.S. base at Futenma. Hmm … so basically after Typhoon Trump threatened the region, it petered out and he has affirmed the conventional U.S. foreign policy he derided. So now we are back at square one, dealing with the same tensions and challenges now complicated by the X factor represented by an erratic president who doesn’t really know what he is doing.
Alas, the Trump alliance downsizes Japanese interests and also lacks any vision. Unlike the April 2015 joint statement with President Barack Obama, there is nothing about U.N. peacekeeping, a U.N. Security Council seat for Japan, nonproliferation, human rights, climate change and the environment, energy policy, poverty, global health, natural disasters, humanitarian assistance or women’s rights. What shared values? Clearly, the world and Americans will be paying a steep price for myopic Trump’s “America First” jingoism.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.
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