Commentary / Japan | Commentary

How to deal with the Trump tantrum?

by Kuni Miyake

For more than a decade, I have always stayed home during the week of Aug. 13 through 16, a period during Japan’s Bon holidays.

Buddhists believe that this is the time when their ancestors’ souls return to visit their relatives. Many Japanese either go back to their hometowns or go on vacation. Summer resorts are so crowded that one can hardly relax. So I never left Tokyo last week.

Ironically I had many more TV, radio and other media appearances than usual. Viewers and listeners can take a break, but news program producers can’t and they must broadcast something. That’s why they chose U.S. President Donald Trump as the topic, and probably me as I was one of the few commentators left in Tokyo last week.

I ended up commenting on the Trump tantrum every couple of days. The questions I was asked were nearly the same. What do you make of U.S. President Donald Trump’s foreign policy? What about the impact of the fourth round of tariffs against imports from China? Can the United States mediate between Japan and South Korea, and will it attack Iran soon?

Although I’m sick and tired of Trump’s “tantrummy” foreign policy, I believe it is worth analyzing the reasons why the U.S. is going in such a wrong direction. Why do we often fail to comprehend the reasons the Trump administration is doomed to fail? The following is my take:

1. Trump’s persona versus his group of advisers

There seems to be a dichotomy between Trump’s personality and his foreign policy entity. The former is the individual, capricious and narcissistic Trump, while the latter is an organization consisting of not necessarily always the best and the brightest advisers but still decent enough ones, and the bureaucracy.

The problem is that the “individual Trump” is not interested nearly so much in governing as campaigning to get re-elected in 2020. The “organizational Trump,” on the contrary, at least tries its best to govern and lead the nation in the right direction to maximize American national interests.

In addition, the former doesn’t always trust the latter and often enjoys letting those advisers compete in coming up with specific foreign policy proposals. To make matters worse, Trump the individual tends to adopt, regardless of its merits, the policy options that he considers best suited to his campaign objectives.

2. Trump’s foreign policy lacks a consistent objective

If there is a dichotomy between Trump’s personality and his organization, there is no room for consistency in the Trump foreign policy. Many of his advisers, while trying not to infuriate the president, seem to be also trying, though not always successful, to help the president govern the nation.

The good news is that some advisers and bureaucrats are more successful than others. The bad news, however, is that the most competent advisers already left the administration by the end of 2018. The best example is Gen. James Mattis, the 26th U.S. secretary of defense.

This situation resembles British author Agatha Christie’s mystery novel “And Then There Were None.” Christie is quoted describing it as the “most difficult” of her books to write. The case of the Trump administration, however, is much more difficult to imagine and probably much more ominous for the United States.

3. Trump’s China policy looks most consistent, while his North Korea looks the least

The hosts of many news programs have asked me why the Trump administration is so tough on China while it is soft on the recent series of North Korean ballistic missile launches.

Both the individual and organization are unanimous on China while not necessarily on North Korea. Trump the individual probably believes that he can be re-elected if the U.S. economy continues to look good while he can continue bashing Beijing. The organizational Trump is also willing to pressure China and even Congress is in sync with the president. There is perfect consistency in China policies.

But North Korea must be the opposite. The priority of the Korean Peninsula is not very high because pressuring Pyongyang or Kim Jong Un may not greatly help the president win the 2020 election. Trump has no strategy but only adopts advisers’ ideas which would make him look great on TV screens.

Trump’s Iran policy seems to be somewhere in between. Targeting Tehran is much more lucrative than pressuring Pyongyang because the former has more favorable domestic audiences. However, Trump seems to know well that he can attack Iran but cannot win a war against Tehran.

4. How should Japan deal with Trump’s foreign policy?

Most of the news programs ended with this question. They also asked what Japan would do if Washington requested Tokyo to multiply its share of the cost of stationing U.S. troops in this country. That may be what the individual Trump has in mind but not the organization.

We are not in the 1980s or ’90s anymore. That was when the Soviets rose and collapsed but China was not on the rise yet. Now the geostrategic environment in East and South Asia and the Western Pacific has dramatically changed. Nobody in the organizational Trump seems to have challenged that.

Anyway, it was an unexpectedly hectic Bon holiday week. Whether my judgment is wrong or not, however, the dichotomy in the Trump administration will be there to stay. I am particularly concerned about the approaching global economic recession, which requires a strong politico-economic policy coordination among the Group of Seven nations.

Can and will Trum play the same key role that his predecessors did for the Plaza Accord in 1985 or when the global financial crisis hit in September 2008? I sincerely hope he can. If not, it will not only undermine his re-election in 2020 but also the entire post-1945 international order.

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.

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