BY ISHAAN THAROOR* – The Washington Post
Over the weekend, a Fox News anchor made a rather embarrassing slip-up. As the right-wing network broadcast live images of President Trump descending from Air Force One into a muggy Singapore night, “Fox & Friends” co-host Abby Huntsman waxed rhapsodic about the upcoming summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. “Regardless of what happens in that meeting between the two dictators,” she said, “what we are seeing right now, this is history.”
Critics of both Fox News and Trump crowed over Huntsman’s unfortunate error, for which she quickly apologized.
But while Trump is no dictator himself, it’s worth considering his willingness to coddle real strongmen. One of the biggest objections to his meeting with Kim, even among some members of his own party, is that Trump is giving an international platform to the leader of perhaps the world’s most cruel totalitarian regime. Though Trump has inveighed against the horrors of Kim’s rule during speeches in both Seoul and Washington, he is not expected to raise the issue of human rights in direct talks with Kim.
To some, that’s bitterly disappointing. “He should not make a deal with terrorists,” one North Korean defector told NBC News. “This regime will never give up its nuclear development.”
Still, it shouldn’t be surprising. A pillar of Trump’s “America First” agenda has been a retreat from conversations about human rights abuses, the rule of law and democracy around the world. Instead, he and his lieutenants grandstand over their narrow view of the national interest, the importance of sovereignty and the supposed global conspiracies and foreign threats undermining the United States.
That grandstanding was on full display during the debacle at the Group of Seven summit in Canada last weekend, where Trump dealt critical damage to a bloc of once-like-minded Western democracies. After two days of insults directed at Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau by Trump and his proxies — based largely on both a misunderstanding of Trudeau’s own comments and a likely deliberate misinterpretation of U.S.-Canada trade statistics — Canadians collectively fumed at the “bully” to their south.
“I think this is a case of ‘kick the dog,’” Fen Hampson, a political scientist at Carleton University in Ottawa, told The Post. “My reading is that Trump is trying to negotiate with the Koreans and dealing with much bigger players, the Chinese and the Europeans, on trade issues. I think he’s trying to make an example of Canada. Canada’s a small, super-friendly ally .?.?. and I think he’s just kind of sending a message to the rest of the world: ‘If we can treat the Canadian this way, you ain’t seen nothing yet in terms of what might be coming your way.'”
Trump has now sparred to varying degrees with the leaders of France, Germany and Britain. He has cast doubt on America’s commitment to the ideals of transnational institutions such as the European Union and the United Nations. Yet he has been conspicuously tolerant of, and sometimes chummy with, a range of authoritarian figures, from Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sissi to Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines.
“Who are the three guys in the world he most admires? President Xi [Jinping] of China, [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and [Russian President Vladmir] Putin,” a Trump adviser told my colleagues last year. “They’re all the same guy.”
That’s likely because their demagogic style meshes far better with Trump’s own instincts than that of liberals such as Trudeau or French President Emmanuel Macron. “Trump has been saying for a long time things like, ‘I am the only one who matters,’ ” Ruth Ben-Ghiat of New York University told my colleague Ashley Parker. “The idea that his instincts are what guide him and he doesn’t need any experts is part of this…. That’s all typical of the authoritarian way of doing things.”
In an eye-opening article citing Trump’s own staffers, the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg captured the crass simplicity of Trump’s worldview. “The Trump Doctrine is ‘We’re America, Bitch,'” a senior White House official with direct access to the president told Goldberg. “That’s the Trump Doctrine.”
Goldberg unpacks what that blunt statement implies: “‘We’re America, Bitch’ is not only a characterologically accurate collective self-appraisal—the gangster fronting, the casual misogyny, the insupportable confidence—but it is also perfectly Rorschachian. To Trump’s followers, ‘We’re America, Bitch’ could be understood as a middle finger directed at a cold and unfair world, one that no longer respects American power and privilege. To much of the world, however, and certainly to most practitioners of foreign and national-security policy, ‘We’re America, Bitch’ would be understood as self-isolating, and self-sabotaging.”
The latter argument has been made routinely by Trump’s legion of critics in the U.S. foreign-polic—- establishment. Trump’s supporters, though, see his willingness to challenge Washington’s high-minded orthodoxy as a crucial part of his political appeal.
“I think the president’s ability to make decisions that at any given moment may not be viewed as the most popular but yet are in keeping with his campaign promises is being rewarded back home in the districts that for a large part have lost faith in Washington, D.C.,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a close Trump ally. “So his ability to make tough decisions and stand up to the criticisms of a perhaps unconventional decision-making process by D.C. standards is resonating on Main Street.”
But his opponents see, instead, a president whose volatile unilateralism is steadily eroding American democracy. “Republicans here, in the Senate and the House, many of them are the aiders and abettors to the things that Trump is doing. There is no accountability. There is no check,” Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) told my colleagues. “This is the imperial presidency. That’s the way we seem to be going toward.”
- Goldberg also offered two other theories of the Trump Doctrine that are slightly more subtle than the one presented above:
“The third-best encapsulation of the Trump Doctrine, as outlined by a senior administration official over lunch a few weeks ago, is this: ‘No Friends, No Enemies.’ This official explained that he was not describing a variant of the realpolitik notion that the U.S. has only shifting alliances, not permanent friends. Trump, this official said, doesn’t believe that the U.S. should be part of any alliance at all. ‘We have to explain to him that countries that have worked with us together in the past expect a level of loyalty from us, but he doesn’t believe that this should factor into the equation,’ the official said.
“The second-best self-description of the Trump Doctrine I heard was this, from a senior national-security official: ‘Permanent destabilization creates American advantage.’ The official who described this to me said Trump believes that keeping allies and adversaries alike perpetually off-balance necessarily benefits the United States, which is still the most powerful country on Earth. When I noted that America’s adversaries seem far less destabilized by Trump than do America’s allies, this official argued for strategic patience. ‘They’ll see over time that it doesn’t pay to argue with us.’”
Still, the Atlantic editor didn’t reckon that either was as accurate as the succinct, vulgar version he heard from the White House official.
- And what of developments in Singapore? On Monday in Washington, experts and observers held their breath as officials met in the Southeast Asian metropolis. My colleague Anna Fifield detailed Kim’s Monday night swing through the city, a landmark debut for the reclusive despot:
“The Singaporean hosts seemed to be daring Kim to think big, to dream of the kind of glittering future his country could have if it opens up to the outside world, as they took him on the late-evening tour.
“The outing was in stark contrast to Trump’s itinerary. The president went to the U.S. Embassy after having lunch with Singapore’s prime minister and was not seen again for the rest of the day.
“But soon after 9 p.m., Kim headed out of his five-star hotel and set out first for Gardens by the Bay, a huge open space on Singapore’s waterfront with striking Flower Dome and Cloud Forest conservatories.
“There, Singapore’s foreign minister, Vivian Balakrishnan, took a selfie with Kim and Education Minister Ong Ye Kung in front of a wall of flowers. Kim, in the middle, was smiling and looking directly into the camera. ‘Jalanjalan,’ Balakrishnan wrote on Twitter, using the Malay term for going for a walk.”
- My colleague Adam Taylor looks at the matter that will likely go unaddressed during the summit — human rights in North Korea:
“The country has long been closed to most outside observers, but reports of disturbing practices have made their way out into the world for decades. Perhaps the most authoritative was a report released by the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea in 2014.
“After speaking to more than 320 people, including refugees from the country, over the course of a year, the report’s authors concluded that North Korea was committing crimes against humanity. ‘These are not mere excesses of the State,’ they noted. ‘[T]hey are essential components of a political system that has moved far from the ideals on which it claims to be founded.’ The report compared the North Korean regime to a totalitarian state, noting that in terms of the scale of its human rights violations, North Korea ‘does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.’
“In its report, the commission said it had found evidence of ‘extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.’”
The big news
Today’s historic summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un isn’t the first time the United States and North Korea have tried to mend fences, but each previous attempt has been a bust. Indeed, skeptics in Washington – of which there are many – have harkened back to the failed agreements of 1994 and 2005 to justify their pessimism about this year’s effort. But our Tokyo bureau chief, Anna Fifield, who has witnessed plenty of diplomatic efforts around North Korea come to naught, says there is a different, more positive feeling about the Singapore summit. She explains why:
“Despite everything I’ve learned in the 14 years since I began covering North Korea, I feel hopeful ahead of Tuesday’s summit. I’m not optimistic about complete denuclearization. Kim is highly unlikely to give up his nuclear program anytime soon, no matter what he agrees to on Tuesday.
“But this moment feels different.
“From the outside, people tend to look at North Korea as a monolith, stuck in a time warp somewhere between the Victorian era and Stalin’s heyday. But in fundamental ways, North Korea is beginning to change. It’s essentially capitalist now, with more than half of North Koreans earning their living in the market economy. And it’s no longer the cliched ‘Hermit Kingdom,’ either. Yes, the regime does its best to cut off all information from the outside world, but almost every escapee I’ve met knows they do not live in a paradise.
“Kim is also different from his father. Kim Jong Il was an introverted, reluctant leader who seemed to hate having to leave his palaces. In stark contrast, Kim Jong Un is a charismatic leader who seems to relish being out and about. Clearly, he is capable of great brutality. But he appears to be thinking rationally about what he needs to do if he is going to stay in power: take care of his own people.
“Played right, this could be an opportunity for the outside world to alleviate the plight of the 25 million North Koreans who are subject to his threats on a daily basis. This will be difficult. Kim Jong Un may be game for some economic change, but he will certainly resist political changes that could weaken his grip on the state. Still, in so many ways, this millennial is ready to do things differently, and so is President Trump.”
*Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.