Some Alternate Takeaways From Trump’s Trip To Asia

With Kim Jong-un at the DMZ

President’s Doctrine Heavy On Getting People To Buy Stuff, Light On Fostering Freedom

Trump succeeded in making a big show of an event that’s often one of the most boring in the world. The G-20 Summit. Trump can still create a stir by refusing to acknowledge climate change, and by delivering his most withering criticism in the direction of America’s closes allies. But that’s hardly shocking by now. His hearty embrace of murderous despots (Russian President Putin, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, and on the way home, Kim Jong-un) never stops being shocking.

(Though Putin’s blood-curdling commentary describing Western-style liberal Democracies as “no longer tenable”, was undermined by Trump’s response, in which Trump seemed to understand “Western” as “California”, and the Russian leader’s message got lost in a rant trashing San Francisco and L.A.)

Still, through all that froth and frenzy, we believe the President’s core beliefs about how foreign governments and people should behave vis-a-vis the U.S., grew clearer. And we have some very different takeaways than much of what we’ve been reading this weekend.

And we shouldn’t say “Trump’s doctrine”, because it’s really two:

  1. The American President’s main job on the world stage is to sell ever vaster amounts of U.S. made arms to foreign countries.
  2. Most people around the world won’t really care about freedom, but will become happy and peaceful if the American President can provide them with a vision of increasing prosperity.

What does that mean in practical terms?

Putting a lot of emphasis on browbeating allies into buying much more American-made arms, and approving the sale of military equipment (or new types of military equipment) to countries that never would’ve been allowed to buy it before (and even if the U.S. Congress disapproves).

Where did this play out at the summit? For one, with Saudi Arabia, with Trump praising the Crown Prince as doing a “spectacular job” and leading “like a revolution in a very positive way”. That despite all kinds of evidence he was behind the murder of a Washington Post journalist critical of his regime. And why? The answer is always the same: because the Saudi leader’s a really, really good customer.

And perhaps even more interestingly with Japan. Trump appeared to throw down the gauntlet for Prime Minister Abe, saying an “unfair” (his favorite word) defense treaty signed after World War II requiring the U.S. to protect Japan needs to be changed. Thing is, that treaty–and Japan’s Constitution–was implemented by the U.S. in order to ensure Japan did not pose a military threat to the Pacific in the future. Like NATO (which Trump also calls “unfair”), it’s worked. Is Japan still potentially a threat? Or is Trump right in thinking these types of things need to be revised after so many years, and the section of Japan’s Constitution, fashioned by General Douglas McArthur, which pledges Japan will:

“forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes…land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized”

…is just a cop-out?

Nobel Prize novelist Kenzaburo Oe has spoken often of a real danger in allowing Japan to remilitarize, and Prime Minister Abe’s very strong efforts to soften Japan’s history books to deemphasize atrocities committed by Japanese forces are equally dangerous. We believe a country is only as old as its most recent war. The U.S. has been in many major conflicts since World War II, and those are the ones that are most referenced in American society. Japan hasn’t. World War II still looms large.

Abe’s moved forcefully already to weaken Japan’s pacifist stance and strengthen its military. He’s been ramping Japan up in this direction for a while, to the point where it’s already spending more on its forces than ever before. In this context, ending the treaty with the U.S. might even be welcome to some, especially among Right-wing circles in Japan, to which the Prime Minister squarely belongs. And of course, a lot of new equipment would have to be bought from the U.S.

While Trump always couches it in terms of allies finally paying their “fair share”, that’s not really what this is about at all. (If it was, we’d fully support it).

How can we say that? Because if it was, then Trump would also be talking about reducing U.S. military spending, as other countries start paying for a lot of what the U.S. is paying for now. But he never mentions that. In fact, he only talks about how he wants unprecedented increases in U.S. military spending too. So this isn’t really about rebalancing who pays for the world’s defense equipment, it’s about selling more and more and more to virtually everybody. Because unlike most other manufactured products, where Trump has to try to prod U.S. corporations into bringing production back from overseas, for security reasons, military contractors represent one of the few heavy industries that never left. Meaning arms sales are one of the few things that translate immediately into U.S. jobs. Not hopefully, a year or two or three from now, or when tariffs kick in. Immediately.

As a side note, we also think Trump’s blatant disregard for international convention on things like climate change, and long-respected diplomatic relationships, has emboldened countries like Japan to do things like restart commercial whaling. Which it did today, 3 decades after they’d officially halted it (although always continued in a limited way by calling it “for research purposes”). But if Trump can thumb his nose at the rest of the world on all kinds of things, why can’t they on whaling? (And other countries too, on other things…?)

Talking to anyone. Which is fine. If that’s Trump’s thing, go let him do it.

Why on top of that does he insist on complimenting some of the most despicable people in this world? Probably because compliments mean nothing to him. They’re cheap. How many times have you heard him call someone “very special”? Think he means it?

But the question we want to get to is what’s behind that compulsion? We think what the President is showing is a deep-seated belief that most people around the world don’t really care about freedom if you can show them the possibility of great wealth in the future, even if you’re not putting anything in their hands right now. He’s taking that approach in the Mideast, where his administration has taken to characterize the Israel-Palestine conflict not at all from a humanitarian or political perspective anymore (primarily because he’s completely adopted Israel’s), but entirely in terms of painting a rosy somewhat distant vision of economic prosperity for Palestinians. “A hot I.P.O.” is how Treasury Secretary Mnuchin is characterizing the West Bank and Gaza. Touting a program that would promise economic development, and that’ll be all it takes.

Similarly in North Korea, where Trump believes if he can put a vision of riches in front of Kim Jong-un, thus ensuring his longevity by improving the financial plight of his people, it’ll be enough to get him to give up his nukes. (It won’t).

So that’s what we learned from Trump this weekend, in a nutshell.