22 February 2019
US President Donald Trump has called NATO obsolete and suggested that Japan and South Korea should look after themselves. Photo: Reuters
US President Donald Trump has called NATO obsolete and suggested that Japan and South Korea should look after themselves. Photo: Reuters

Donald Trump: Is it a comma or a period?

Donald J. Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20 as the 45th US president was a defining moment in American history, as the United States turned inward, discarding the mantle of leadership that it had assumed over the past 75 years.

Having run as a populist candidate, it is not surprising that the bulk of his inaugural address was devoted to the domestic scene, which he painted in somber hues.

But he also spoke on foreign affairs — not about America’s commitment to global leadership but about how America’s foreign entanglements had led to the weakening of American industry, the depletion of America’s military and the decay of its infrastructure.

Instead of a post-war international order created and led by the US, Trump sees a world in which the US is a victim where other countries take advantage of its generosity. The US, it seems, should now turn its back on the world.

Significantly, he said not a word about the role of American business, about how the rich got richer by shuttering factories and moving them overseas, leaving American workers jobless, how rich people like himself avoided paying taxes and how, in 2014, the wealthiest 1 percent of the population possessed 40 percent of the nation’s wealth while the bottom 80 percent only owned 7 percent.

It is ironic that Trump should excoriate the establishment and champion the people in his speech while his cabinet is top-heavy with billionaires.

Perhaps Trump’s most dangerous pronouncements have been not about America’s adversaries but about its allies, and its alliances.

He has called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization obsolete and suggested that Japan and South Korea should look after themselves, perhaps develop their own nuclear weapons, despite the threat of North Korea to them and to the US.

In his inaugural address, Trump did talk about the country’s alliances, saying: “We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones — and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth.”

The NATO nations are already involved in the fight against ISIS so, from that standpoint, Trump may be willing to overlook what he calls its obsolescence.

But his reference to the formation of new alliances is intriguing. Which countries does he have in mind? He had previously spoken of joining hands with Russia in combating ISIS. Is he thinking of that country as a future American ally? The mind boggles.

It is unlikely that his European allies would stand for it. Or the Republican Party for that matter.

But Trump doesn’t seem to distinguish friend from foe. He thinks nothing of undermining America’s closest allies in Europe and is cheering on the dismemberment of the European Union.

Trump did not mention North Korea in his inaugural address. But, in response to a claim by the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, that his country was developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching the US, Trump had tweeted, “It won’t happen.”

What will he do if it does happen? To deal with North Korea, the US will need the help of China.

The eyes of the world are on the US-China relationship. Trump did not mention China in his speech and China is being extremely low-key, saying very little in the official media. But if Trump does threaten to repudiate the “One China” policy under which the US undertakes not to recognize Taiwan as a country, all bets are off.

This is widely recognized as the world’s most important bilateral relationship and China is now not only the world’s second largest economy but also a major military and diplomatic power. Trump needs to carefully decide what he hopes to accomplish rather than charge like the proverbial bull in a china shop.

Where trade is concerned, China is quite likely prepared to make concessions such as opening up its economy further and increasing investments in the US to create jobs.

But a linkage between trade and Taiwan would challenge China’s most profound core interest. It would not strengthen Trump’s hand. Taiwan, too, doesn’t want to be treated like a bargaining chip.

Of course, these are early days for Trump. As for the long-term significance of the new administration, Barack Obama, after attending the inauguration, told former members of his White House staff that the Trump administration “is not a period; this is a comma.”

That is, Trump is little more than a transitional figure. Maybe. But right now, it looks like he is in a position to wreak havoc almost on a daily basis while he is transitioning.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.

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