When Donald Trump returns to the US from his Asian jaunt, the president’s critics will invariably accuse him of pandering to dictators and strongmen.
Trump’s affinity for authoritarians is one of the defining features of his presidency and it’s never been completely clear whether his penchant for deference to leaders like Turkey’s Erdogan, Egypt’s El-Sisi and, of course, Vladimir Putin, is due more to fascination, admiration and respect or more to a combination of fear and ignorance.
Pandering to dictators is perilous for obvious reasons. It’s even more dangerous when it’s the President of the United States doing the pandering. Things are made immeasurably worse when the president tries to replicate elements of authoritarian government at home (e.g., cracking down on critical media outlets, bullying the judicial branch and exercising emergency powers to circumvent the legislature), as that only encourages similar tactics abroad.
At the G20 in Osaka, Trump appears to have folded on Huawei. At the very least, it seems that media reports suggesting Xi was determined to extract a concession with regard to the tech giant were some semblance of true (Larry Kudlow’s “fake news” protestations notwithstanding).
Trump also looks to have waffled on the S-400 issue when pressed by Erdogan. The president didn’t stand up to Putin on election meddling and he didn’t demand accountability from Mohammed bin Salman on slain dissident Jamal Khashoggi.
Finally, Trump got his photo op with Kim Jong Un at the DMZ and, as far as anyone can tell, denuclearization was but a peripheral issue. The Kim meeting was pageantry for the sake of pageantry.
“I just want to say that this is my honor. I didn’t really expect it. We were in Japan for the G20 and I said ‘Hey, I’m over here. I want to call Chairman Kim'”, Trump said, standing beside Pyongyang’s murderous boy despot, who at times seemed on the verge of pinching himself to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. “Stepping across that line [into North Korea] was a great honor. This has been in particular a great friendship”, Trump continued.
(If the video does not load, please refresh your page)
Trump then shook hands with a visibly bemused Kim and, in a singularly astonishing soundbite, said “I would invite him right now to the White House”.
Trump wasn’t done flattering Kim. Later, the president went so far as to praise Kim’s voice. “You hear the power of that voice. Nobody’s heard that voice before”, Trump said, as though Kim were a mute before 2018’s Singapore summit. “I think the relationship that we’ve developed has been so much to so many people”.
The president delivered a hodgepodge of perfunctory comments during remarks to reporters. “We’re looking to get this right and there’s a lot of goodwill. We’re not seeking speed”, Trump said.
Nuclear talks will be restarted, apparently. “Over the next two to three weeks, [our] teams will start working on something”, Trump claimed.
As far as setting a date for Kim to show up at the White House, Trump said “we have a ways to go yet”. He also said that although “sanctions remain”, he “looks forward to some day removing them”.
If you’re wondering what Kim’s “powerful” voice said, it was the usual. He spoke in childlike platitudes. “I want to use strong relations to create good news”, he declared. “Good relations help create power to overcome difficulties”. He also said he was “surprised” that Trump arranged the impromptu photo op. One imagines that’s an understatement. Kim also lavished praise on the “historic moment” when Trump stepped into North Korea.
Prior to the meeting, Trump claimed Obama “was begging” for a meeting with Kim. That, of course, is a lie. “Trump is lying. I was there for all 8 years”, Ben Rhodes said. “Obama never sought a meeting with Kim Jong Un. Foreign policy isn’t reality television it’s reality.”
Kim has not lived up to any of the pseudo-commitments he made at the first summit in Singapore. He’s still testing missiles and there’s been zero real progress on denuclearization.
When it was all said and done, Trump’s meeting with Kim went just like his meetings with Putin, Erdogan, Bin Salman and Xi. His pretensions to toughness – the bullying, the threats, the bombast – melt away when he’s in the same room with the authoritarians he so admires. These are, after all, real strongmen who preside over repressive regimes and are all capable of committing murder.
The only thing that gives US presidents the undisputed upper hand when dealing with real-life despots is the power of America’s democracy, the indissolubility of the republic, the resiliency of the country’s institutions and, of course, the military. Because Trump actively undermines all of those sources of power save one, his clout is woefully diminished. He flaunts America’s military prowess like a child showing off his G.I. Joe collection. That is meaningless. Nobody questions the capabilities of America’s conventional military or the supremacy of its nuclear arsenal.
What global actors do question and test, however, is the durability of America’s democracy, the country’s commitment to defending its allies, the willingness of a given administration to take the lead on the issues that matter and the resolve of the country’s armed forces when faced with irrational actors engaged in guerrilla warfare (ironic, given that America’s independence was won in no small part thanks to asymmetric warfare).
The latter concern (America’s appetite for protracted and costly wars of attrition and counterinsurgency) will be a problem as long as the country persists in military adventurism. In theory, though, the country’s democracy should always hold up. Its commitment to preserving strategic alliances should be unwavering. And any US president should work to ensure that the country remains at the forefront of efforts to tackle the world’s most pressing problems.
Trump has, at various intervals from the time he announced his candidacy, undermined the country’s democracy, explicitly called into question America’s commitments to allies and demonstrated time and again that his administration will not lead on key issues, opening the door for authoritarians like Xi to step into the void and anoint themselves the champion of globalization (to cite one example).
And so, when Trump comes face to face with dictators, despots and authoritarians, he has no leverage. Flanked by a cast of cartoon characters like Peter Navarro and Mick Mulvaney, he sits across the table and looks into the eyes of stone killers who see a fool, a buffoon, a coward and, at worst, a man on whom they have compromising information (financial or otherwise) blinking back at them.
The only leverage Trump really has is the threat of tariffs and economic sanctions. If other countries believe they can weather that storm, he’s powerless. And, as we’ve seen with Instex, his ill-advised efforts to ostracize America’s allies encourage other countries to undermine the Treasury department’s ability to squeeze “rogue” nations economically.
All of that said, Trump won’t deserve all of the criticism he’ll invariably get once he returns to the US. Putin would be Putin, regardless. The same goes for Erdogan. With Xi, it’s not entirely fair to lambast Trump’s trade war and then turn around and criticize him for trying to deescalate it, although lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are poised to argue that while the tariffs are silly, the Huawei ban was, in fact, entirely justified.
The meeting with Kim is something of a different animal. On one hand, it’s clear that Trump either doesn’t fully understand what he’s been told about the regime’s brutality or else he simply doesn’t care. Either is unforgivable. On the other hand, it’s now evident that Kim is at least a little bit enamored with Trump’s reality show persona, if only because he knows it affords him a chance to legitimize his rule by scoring the (at this point explicit) endorsement of a sitting US president. Although Kim is almost surely playing Trump for a fool, the fact is, the chances of him doing something to jeopardize future opportunities to cement the legitimacy of his regime are low, and if that reduces the odds of people being killed, well then Trump probably deserves some credit.
In any case, one person who believes Trump’s Asian expedition was a big success is Trump. “Leaving South Korea after a wonderful meeting with Chairman Kim Jong Un. Stood on the soil of North Korea, an important statement for all, and a great honor!”, he tweeted.
Asked earlier in the day about his mood, Trump said simply “I feel great”.