Donald Trump has had quite a week. At the G7 summit in Canada the US president repudiated the rules-based international order, preferring to throw a tantrum on trade. By Tuesday, he was discarding longstanding security guarantees to America’s east Asian allies at his headline-grabbing talks in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The security of Europe and east Asia has been underwritten for 70 years by a US alliance system. Mr Trump is intent on dismantling it.
It takes a special talent even for this president to recast Canada as an adversary before embracing as a new-found friend a brutal dictator with a recently acquired nuclear arsenal. We should know not to measure Mr Trump against the usual norms. The chilling significance of these actions resides in the clarity they bring to his intentions.
China and Russia are throwing their hats in the air to celebrate the president’s retreat from international leadership. Absent from the Singapore summit, Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, was nonetheless a big winner. In Mr Trump’s world of everyone for themselves, China will replace the US as the pre-eminent power in east Asia. Japan, Taiwan and, in time, South Korea itself, may choose to take a tip from Mr Kim. If you want to be safe, build a bomb.
G7 leaders have been inclined to make a case that Mr Trump can be “managed”. France’s president Emmanuel Macron applied flattery. Japan’s Shinzo Abe wooed the president on the golf course. Britain’s Theresa May dangles an invitation for tea with Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace. The be-nice strategy has now been derailed.
Donald Tusk, the president of the EU, speculated the other day as to whether the western political community faced a cyclical or a structural threat from US unilateralism. Mr Tusk is a thoughtful politician, someone worth listening to. He can also be over-generous. The US president has answered his question loud and clear: he disdains any such political community.
The one good thing to say about the statement released by Mr Trump and Mr Kim in Singapore is that it seems to preclude imminent war. Not so long ago Mr Trump was threatening to reduce the Korean peninsula to rubble. The Pentagon was told to work up a war plan. Mr Trump talked about pressing his big nuclear button. Residents of Seoul will be understandably relieved that the US president now prefers to lavish praise on Pyongyang.
Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, may be termed “dishonest” and “weak”, but in the president’s mind, Mr Kim is someone America can “trust”. South Korean president Moon Jae-in deserves only praise for his role in fostering detente. Mr Moon seems genuinely to believe that Mr Kim wants to put economic modernisation before nuclear posturing. He must forgive the rest of us if we do not recognise in Mr Kim the new Mikhail Gorbachev.
The summit produced nothing new from Pyongyang in the way of promises to denuclearise. It did confer global recognition of North Korea’s nuclear status and of the legitimacy of its authoritarian leader. Mr Trump arrived in Singapore asking for a transparent process of complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation. Presented with a series of rehashed, meaningless platitudes, he declared victory. More, he called a halt to joint US military exercises with Seoul. In the fullness of time, he wants to bring home the 30,000 US troops in South Korea. After all, they cost “a lot of money”. Even the optimistic Mr Moon gets a little unnerved at this point.
Mr Trump has thrown out this week the assumptions that have kept the peace in east Asia since the end of the second world war. Japan has obvious and powerful historical reasons for eschewing a strong military and the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Its pacifism has been made possible by America’s security shelter.
Policymakers in Tokyo must now ask themselves for how long that will last as China grows more assertive. Might Mr Trump sell out the US defence guarantee to Japan for a better trade deal with Beijing? He has suggested as much. Taiwanese politicians will be making a similar calculation. Take the US further out of the regional picture and so will Indonesia and the Philippines.
Mr Trump, of course, will not be pulling back US forces today, tomorrow or even the day after that. But security resides in durable trust and confidence. The leaders of these nations must look five, 10 and 20 years ahead. The current judgment has to be that the US is heading home, even if the process slows beyond Mr Trump’s presidency.
Next month it will be Europe’s turn. Mr Trump will be attending the Nato summit in Brussels. He has made a link between Washington’s disproportionate funding of the military alliance and European tariffs on US manufactures. Why should we pay if you have a trade surplus? Jim Mattis, the defence secretary, has invested much personal capital in seeking to persuade the president that the alliance is as important for the US as for European security. It is far from clear that he has succeeded.
I am sometimes asked what I consider to represent the biggest threat to global peace and stability. A nuclear North Korea looks dangerous, but containable. Mr Kim is not a madman. So the temptation is to reply that the risk is found in China’s rise or in Russian revanchism. The real answer is Mr Trump’s retreat.