Don­ald Trump’s thing for thugs

The Phnom Penh Post - - OPINION -

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.

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