Conservative premier of Alberta https://t.co/BkUHFX9KlK
— David Frum (@davidfrum) April 4, 2020
Because he’s just a bully with delusions of grandeur.
International crises often lead, at least initially, to surging support for a country’s leadership. And that’s clearly happening now. Just weeks ago the nation’s leader faced public discontent so intense that his grip on power seemed at risk. Now the assassination of Qassim Suleimani has transformed the situation, generating a wave of patriotism that has greatly bolstered the people in charge.
Unfortunately, this patriotic rallying around the flag is happening not in America, where many are (with good reason) deeply suspicious of Donald Trump’s motives, but in Iran.
In other words, Trump’s latest attempt to bully another country has backfired — just like all his previous attempts.
From his first days in office, Trump has acted on the apparent belief that he could easily intimidate foreign governments — that they would quickly fold and allow themselves to be humiliated. That is, he imagined that he faced a world of Lindsey Grahams, willing to abandon all dignity at the first hint of a challenge.
But this strategy keeps failing; the regimes he threatens are strengthened rather than weakened, and Trump is the one who ends up making humiliating concessions.
Remember, for example, when Trump promised “fire and fury” unless North Korea halted its nuclear weapons program? He claimed triumph after a 2018 summit meeting with Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader. But Kim made no real concessions, and North Korea recently announced that it might resume tests of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.
Or consider the trade war with China, which was supposed to bring the Chinese to their knees. A deal has supposedly been reached, although details remain scarce; what’s clear is that it falls far short of U.S. aims, and that Chinese officials are jubilant about their success in facing Trump down.
Why does Trump’s international strategy, which might be described as winning through intimidation, keep failing? And why does he keep pursuing it anyway?
One answer, I suspect, is that like all too many Americans, Trump has a hard time grasping the fact that other countries are real — that is, that we’re not the only country whose citizens would rather pay a heavy price, in money and even in blood, than make what they see as humiliating concessions.
Ask yourself, how would Americans have reacted if a foreign power had assassinated Dick Cheney, claiming that he had the blood of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis on his hands? Don’t answer that Suleimani was worse. That’s beside the point. The point is that we don’t accept the right of foreign governments to kill our officials. Why imagine that other countries are different?
Of course, we have many people in the diplomatic corps with a deep knowledge of other nations and their motivations, who understand the limits of intimidation. But anyone with that kind of understanding has been excluded from Trump’s inner circle.
Now, it’s true that for many years America did have a special leadership position, one that sometimes involved playing a role in reshaping other countries’ political systems. But here’s where Trump’s second error comes in: He has never shown any sign of understanding why America used to be special.
Part of the explanation, of course, was raw economic and military power: America used to be just much bigger than everyone else. That is, however, no longer true. For example, by some key measures China’s economy is significantly bigger than that of the United States.
Even more important, however, was the fact that America was something more than a big country throwing its weight around. We always stood for something larger.
That doesn’t mean that we were always a force for good; America did many terrible things during its reign as global hegemon. But we clearly stood for global rule of law, for a system that imposed common rules on everyone, ourselves included. The United States may have been the dominant partner in alliances like NATO and bodies like the World Trade Organization, but we always tried to behave as no more than first among equals.
Oh, and because we were committed to enforcing rules, we were also relatively trustworthy; an alliance with America was meaningful, because we weren’t the kind of country that would betray an ally for the sake of short-term political convenience.
Trump, however, has turned his back on everything that used to make America great. Under his leadership, we’ve become nothing more than a big, self-interested bully — a bully with delusions of grandeur, who isn’t nearly as tough as he thinks. We abruptly
- abandon allies like the Kurds;
- we honor war criminals; we
- slap punitive tariffs on friendly nations like Canada for no good reason. And, of course,
- after more than 15,000 lies, nothing our leader and his minions say can be trusted.
Trump officials seem taken aback by the uniformly negative consequences of the Suleimani killing: The Iranian regime is empowered, Iraq has turned hostile and nobody has stepped up in our support. But that’s what happens when you betray all your friends and squander all your credibility.
His needlessly provocative remarks should take everyone’s breath away.President Trump reserves some of his worst behavior for foreign trips, such as abasing himself before President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in Helsinki a year ago, skipping a ceremony in France last fall to honor American soldiers killed in World War I (too rainy, the White House said) and insulting the mayor of London earlier this month. Yet even by Mr. Trump’s dismal standards, his performance this week before the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, should take everyone’s breath away. More than yet another demonstration of his erratic behavior, this was also an object lesson in the dangers of his context-free hostility to the world beyond the United States.
Before arriving in Japan, Mr. Trump had reportedly been musing about withdrawing the United States from the security treaty with Japan signed in 1951 and revised in 1960 — the cornerstone of the alliance between the United States and Japan and a pillar of American foreign policy. On Wednesday, asked about the treaty on Fox News, Mr. Trump sneered, “If Japan is attacked, we will fight World War III.” Then he added: “But if we’re attacked, Japan doesn’t have to help us at all. They can watch it on a Sony television.”
Mr. Trump’s comment demonstrates a strategic cluelessness and historical ignorance that would disqualify a person from even a modest desk job at the State Department.
Though Mr. Trump implied that the security treaty favors Japan, it was largely dictated by the United States. After Imperial Japan surrendered to the Allies in August 1945, ending World War II, the country was placed under an American-led occupation overseen by the domineering Gen. Douglas MacArthur. When that occupation ended in April 1952, Japan had turned away from militarism to embrace ideals of pacifism and democracy. Under Article 9 of a new Constitution that was originally drafted in English at MacArthur’s headquarters, Japan renounced war and pledged never to maintain land, sea or air forces.
Furthermore, Mr. Trump insults his Japanese hosts by overlooking how Japan actually responded when the United States was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. The Japanese public grieved for their American allies after the terrorist attacks, which also killed some Japanese citizens. Japan’s conservative and pro-American prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, took the massacre as an opportunity to reconsider Article 9 and urge his country to shoulder more international responsibilities. His government rammed through an antiterrorism law which enabled Japan’s Self-Defense Force to provide support for the American campaign in Afghanistan, although — because of the country’s official pacifism — without fighting or directly supporting combat operations.
When President George W. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003, Mr. Koizumi was one of his staunchest foreign supporters. Although Japan remained constitutionally forbidden from joining in the invasion or taking a direct military role, Mr. Koizumi’s government passed a special law allowing the Self-Defense Force to help in humanitarian support missions in postwar Iraq. Hundreds of Japanese ground troops in Iraq provided water and medical help, and fixed roads and buildings. One might reasonably fault Mr. Koizumi, as plenty of Japanese do, for going along with Mr. Bush’s disastrous invasion — but it is far harder to blame Japan, as Mr. Trump does, for not standing alongside the United States.
Mr. Trump’s words are also a pointless slap to Japan’s right-wing prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who has ardently sought to cultivate a relationship with Mr. Trump and is trying to mediate a way out of the crisis between the United States and Iran. The 1960 treaty was signed by Mr. Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, another prime minister. During a four-day state visit to Japan in May, Mr. Abe flattered Mr. Trump with an extraordinary meeting with Japan’s new emperor, a sumo wrestling match and a lavish state banquet at the Imperial Palace. Yet standing next to Mr. Abe at a news conference in Tokyo, Mr. Trump shrugged off Japanese fears about North Korea’s recent tests of short-range ballistic missiles that could kill thousands of Japanese civilians.
What could Mr. Trump possibly hope to gain from his ignorant, ungrateful and antagonistic behavior? He is unlikely to withdraw from the security treaty. Yet by questioning the alliance with Japan, Mr. Trump encourages North Korea and a rising China to test that bond. His words undercut an essential alliance for no evident reason and erode the stability of a strategic region torn by rivalry.
And we are all so used to it by now that it barely registers.