With Allies Like Trump, Who Needs Enemies?
Well, that didn’t exactly go according to plan.
The 44th G7 Summit, held in Charlevoix, Quebec, Canada this past weekend, was, by most accounts, an unmitigated disaster, and one person was at the center of the unrest. I think you know who I’m talking about. That Angela Merkel. Can’t go anywhere without causing a ruckus.
But seriously, if the title didn’t already give it away, it was Donald Trump. With the signing of a communiqué by the leaders representing the G7 member countries — one committed to investing in growth “that works for everyone,” preparing for the jobs of the future, advancing gender equality and women’s empowerment, building a more peaceful and secure world, and working together on climate change, oceans, and clean energy—it appeared there was at least nominal progress and that Trump and the United States were willing to engage in good faith with the rest of the signatories.
Shortly after leaving a summit early to which he had already arrived late, however, Trump (or a surrogate tweeting on his behalf) backtracked on his accession to the communiqué, and in response to the host country’s prime minister Justin Trudeau’s speech addressing Trump directly on the subject of tariffs and indicating Canada would be retaliating so as not to be “pushed around,” he called Trudeau “dishonest and weak,” casting doubt on the productiveness of the whole shebang.
It was perhaps a fitting end to a summit in which Trump suggested Russia be reinstated as part of a Group of 8 — you know, despite its evident interference in American politics and that whole annexation of Crimea thing — characterized the U.S. once more as being taken advantage of economically, and refused to attend portions of the program devoted to climate change.
In fact, Trump’s belligerent positions were enough that French Foreign Minister Bruno Le Maire went as far as to refer to the proceedings as the “G6+1 Summit,” underscoring the United States’ isolation from the other countries represented, and a photo of Ms. Merkel staring down at a seated Pres. Trump went viral as an all-too-perfect summation of how the affair went down. Trump, arms folded, looks like the petulant child to the rest of the adults in the room. Japanese PM Shinzō Abe is also featured prominently, with his arms likewise folded and standing, though with an expression that seems to indicate disapproval or utter boredom. Or maybe he was just wondering when the food was going to arrive. If you ask me, the only good type of meeting is one that involves food.
But I digress. In all, the sense many got of the G7 Summit, especially in the wake of Donald Trump’s 180 as he took off for Singapore in preparation of a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, was one of disarray, and the war of words between Justin Trudeau and Trump further clouded the future of NAFTA negotiations, already decidedly murky amid the latter’s rhetoric on trade deficits between the parties involved and his insistence on a border wall fully furnished by Mexico. If anything, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the UK seem that much more committed to cooperating in spite of America’s actions and without its help than with it. Ahem, let it not be said that Trump isn’t a uniter.
What is so remarkable about how the events of this past weekend unfolded—and when I say “remarkable,” I mean like a horror film which you can’t help but watch despite your urge to look or even run away—is the type of discord Trump and his tantrums encouraged. The other members of the G7 are our presumed allies. In theory, we should be working together on matters that affect the whole, such as climate change, combatting extremism/terrorism, jobs, trade, and women’s rights.
Instead, Trump is content to downplay the effects of climate change and prop up the scandalous Scott Pruitt, play to the racists and xenophobes among his base, tout job numbers that are largely beyond his control, invite trade wars, and deny his own scandals involving sexual encounters or harassment of women. If there’s something to be said positively about his withdrawing from the communiqué, it’s that it’s probably more honest regarding his true feelings on the topics within. Simply put, Trump doesn’t play well with others.
The other element that is remarkable and, at this point, not entirely surprising, is how Trump administration officials have characterized Justin Trudeau in the wake of Trudeau’s decision to levy tariffs back on the United States. Larry Kudlow, director of the U.S. National Economic Council, characterized Trudeau’s comments as a “betrayal” and expressed the belief that the Canadian prime minister “stabbed us in the back.” Peter Navarro, the White House director of trade policy, echoed this sentiment of back-stabbing and suggested there’s a “special place in Hell” for Trudeau.
Again, Trudeau and Canada are our presumptive allies. These kinds of words are usually reserved for staunch enemies like Osama bin Laden and ISIS/ISIL, not our neighbors to the north, and were made on top of Trump’s recent historical gaffe uttered in a May phone call with Trudeau, in which Trump invoked Canada’s burning down the White House during the War of 1812. Which is great, except for the fact it was Britain who set fire to the White House, not Canada. For all Trump knows, it could’ve been Frederick Douglass who started that famed fire. A great student of history, our president, is not.
Numerous critics of Trump’s antics at the G7 Summit and his subsequent comments calling out Trudeau have suggested that this public show of defiance was intended as a show of strength designed to make the president look tough before his historic meeting with Kim Jong-un. As these same critics would aver, however, insulting the leader of a G7 ally for following through with retaliatory tariffs the country announced it would affect even before the summit began achieves the opposite. It makes Trump look petty, and it makes the United States of America look unreliable.
Already, Trump has pulled us out of the Paris climate agreement—which is voluntary and non-binding anyway—and the Iran nuclear agreement, so why would Kim Jong-un or anyone else have reason to believe that Trump’s motives are pure and that the U.S. honors its promises? Unless Trump thinks he can outfox the North Korean leader as a self-professed master negotiator—and let’s be honest—do you really trust him in that capacity either? It’s been over a year in Pres. Trump’s tenure thus far, and I’ve yet to see this great deal-making ability in action—I don’t know about you.
At this writing, American audiences are still having their first reactions to news of the signing of an agreement between the United States and North Korea following their leaders’ summit in Singapore. Based on the available text of the agreement, it outlines commitments to establishing new relations between the two nations, building a “lasting and stable peace regime” on the Korean peninsula, working toward denuclearization of the peninsula, and repatriation of POW/MIA remains. One hopes or even prays for the best.
If we’re being cynical — perhaps real — about the situation, though, we have to wonder what the intentions are behind the parties involved and how liable they are to keep their word. In North Korea, there is no news about the summit or any subsequent accords. As with the 2018 Winter Olympics, there is a blackout on imagery from the Trump-Kim meeting.
For Donald Trump and the U.S., meanwhile, the Devil is in the details regarding this agreement, and there are very few specifics about how denuclearization will be approached and how North Korea will be held accountable. At a press conference following the summit, Trump stated his confidence that Kim and North Korea will abide by the agreement’s terms based on a personal favorable assessment of the North Korean leader. But North Korea has reneged on provisions of previous agreements, and there is still much room for concern over its human rights record and its overall treatment of its citizens.
Plus, knowing Trump’s self-interest, he’s probably welcoming a thawing of relations between the two nations as a conduit to building properties under the Trump name in North Korea. For the concessions made to North Korea in that the United States vows to end its “war games” — its military exercises in conjunction with South Korea — little is known about what assurances we’ve gotten back in return. There’s every possibility that the lion’s share of the benefits would be ones that only those individuals bearing our leader’s last name would be able to enjoy. Ah, but no—it’s all about peace on Earth and goodwill to humankind. Right, right—my mistake.
Some critics, undoubtedly skeptics in their own right, have wondered aloud why Donald Trump would wish to try to negotiate with a dictator like Kim Jong-un and thereby give him legitimacy. There are two rebuttals to this line of thinking. The first and more obvious one is that dictators are, like, Trump’s favorite kind of person, and, as we fear, what the man aims to become.
For example, we’ve long been aware of Trump’s admiration for/refusal to criticize Vladimir Putin. Trump has also invited Rodrigo Duterte, a fellow misogynist and strongman whose war on drugs in the Philippines has claimed thousands of lives, to the White House. He’s given “high marks” to and praised Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s despotic president notorious for cracking down on journalists like a true authoritarian. Xi Jinping of China. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt. If there’s a head of state making an enemy of a free press and readily engaging in human rights abuses, you can be sure Trump is a fan. Of Kim, Trump reportedly called him “honorable,” smart, and someone who “loves his people.” Oh, potentially over 100,000 North Koreans are in prisons over political matters because he loves them so much? I thought if you loved someone or something, you should set them free? No?
Perhaps less obvious but no less germane to this discussion is the idea that America hasn’t really been shy in its embrace of other dictators and human rights abusers over time. Just reviewing more recent history, Barack Obama, for one, paid homage to the Saudis after the passage of then-king Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud, noted autocrat and alleged murderer and torturer. Back in 2009, Hillary Clinton remarked that she considered Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, a dictatorial leader deposed amid the tumult of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011, and his wife, “friends.” So long as there is a means to benefit materially from our relationships with undemocratic heads of state, U.S. leaders are liable to pursue those connections, and while it can’t be assumed necessarily that Trump is playing nice to potentially enrich himself down the road, it sure shouldn’t be ruled out just the same.
Whatever the play is in North Korea, that Trump would appear so chummy with Kim and feud with Justin Trudeau is astonishing, even noting Trump’s desire to look like a tough maverick. I mean, who picks a fight with Canada? If this were hockey, one might be able to understand, but Trump’s finger-pointing is better suited to a South Park plot line than actual diplomatic strategy. To put it another way, when even members of the GOP are admonishing Trump for lashing out at Trudeau, you know it’s got to be a bad decision. No wonder Robert De Niro felt compelled to apologize to the Canadian PM on Americans’ behalf.
The general mood worldwide is one of cautious hope for something good to come out of the historic summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, perhaps notably from China, Japan, and, of course, South Korea, lands with a vested interest in denuclearization of and peace on the Korean peninsula, if for no other reason than geographic proximity. It’s the kind of optimism you would want to see in this context. Not merely to be a wet blanket, however, but there’s a still long way to go and much work to do. After all, Trump is not a man known for his patience or his spirit of collegiality, and it’s much too early to consider North Korea an ally given its track record. Then again, with allies like Trump, who needs enemies?