Donald Trump’s thing for thugs
AUTHORITARIAN leaders exercise a strange and powerful attraction for US President Donald Trump. As his trip to Asia reminds us, a man who loves to bully people turns to mush – fawning smiles, effusive rhetoric – in the company of strongmen like Xi Jinping of China, Vladimir Putin of Russia and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines.
Perhaps he sees in them a reflection of the person he would like to be. Whatever the reason, there’s been nothing quite like Trump’s love affair with one-man rule since Spiro Agnew returned from a world tour in 1972 singing the praises of dictators like Lee Kuan Yew, Haile Selassie, Jomo Kenyatta, Mobutu Sese Seko, General Francisco Franco – thuggish characters whom President Richard Nixon, Agnew’s boss, would have little to do with.
In China, he congratulated Xi for securing a second term as ruler of an authoritarian regime that Trump had spent the 2016 campaign criticising. He again absolved Putin of interfering in the United States election, despite the finding of American intelligence agencies that Moscow did extensive meddling. As for Duterte, Trump effused about their “great” relationship while saying nothing about the thousands who died in a campaign of extrajudicial killings as part of the Philippine president’s anti-drug war.
Yes, serving the national interest often means working with leaders who are undemocratic, corrupt, adversarial or all three. People still talk about how naïve President George W Bush in 2001 declared the Russian president “trustworthy”. President Barack Obama stuck with Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey long after Erdogan evolved into a dictator. Nixon assiduously cultivated China’s Mao Zedong, the shah of Iran and the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.
Still, these past presidents worked within a structure of longstanding alliances and, in varying degrees, espoused support for democratic values, all the while trying to nudge the autocrats along a similar path. President George HW Bush and others encouraged democracy in Russia; President Bill Clinton did likewise in China and Peru.
So what is Trump’s scorecard? Russia and China supported his push for tougher sanctions on North Korea. But there is no sign China has enforced them in a way that will halt North Korea’s nuclear programme. China has not moved to open up its economy, as Trump has demanded. Russia has cooperated to some extent on Syria but not Ukraine.
At home, Trump’s determination to arrogate power unto himself has weakened the State Department and the cadre of professional diplomats that is central to successful problemsolving. It has sidelined people like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. It has left to other nations the important tasks of pursuing goals like climate change and the Iran nuclear deal. In major ways, he is dealing America out of the game.