When in Japan, East Cheeseburgers

Terry H. Schwadron

May 29. 2019

There is an enduring stereotypical ugly American, overseas tourist who only eats hamburgers in the foreign country and insists on bringing along the values from home to every activity.

It’s the image that comes to mind as I try to follow how Donald Trump experienced a state visit to Japan this week.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe leaned over backward to show his guest a good, if familiar good time: a round of golf, a meal of cheeseburgers and barbequed steaks (made with trade-disputed U.S. beef), a televised visit to a sumo wrestling match that had the rules changed for Trump’s comfort (a chair and slippers), and plenty of public attention.

But then there were public disagreements between guest and host over whether the news that neighboring North Korea had just provocatively launched a set of short-range missiles was a matter to shrug off or to be worried about, and there were serious, unresolved disputed about bilateral trade and over the value of a nuclear weapons treaty with Iran that Trump had long derided and discarded.

Call me cynical, but I hardly ever expect that U.S. presidents will actually gain new knowledge or perspectives in these foreign visits, but I was struck that Trump simply brought his personal world with him. Just how much of the difficult moments were as the result of a lack of coordination and planning on the part of the White House was unclear. Trump’s preference, as he has made clear, is to pursue personal relationship and wing it on policy.

Trump has three other state visits coming up — including Britain, where members of Parliament have already barred him from addressing their body, and France, where he wants more celebratory flag-waving.

As far as I can tell from news reports, Trump postponed dealing with the outstanding trade issues with Japan until after parliamentary elections in July — perhaps a sop to Abe to keep him from having to make any concessions before facing the voters. Indeed, Trump continued to threaten high tariffs on Japanese car imports, an important issue for us, but a critical issue for the Japanese.

Trump did choose to use the shared stage to dump on Joe Biden, assuring all that the home political front was more important than learning from the Japanese.

And he seemed to indicate that he wouldn’t mind if Abe could serve as a back channel to the Iranians, even though Trump and Abe split over the value of breaking a nuclear treaty in order to try to win, well, a nuclear treaty that also promises that Iran will stop all of its bad behavior in the Middle East.

So other than a stop at a sumo match and formally greeting the new Japanese emperor, it seemed like a normal work day or four for Trump — the domestic issues that he likes to flaunt came first and last and any concerns that the Japanese have subordinated to pursuit of personal friendship as diplomacy, all heavily sprinkled with adulation and celebratory pomp. Along the way, the Japanese agreed to buy a ton of F-35 fighter jets from the United States, and we were reminded how limited Trump’s strategic world view really is.

Trump managed to contradictJohn Bolton, his national security adviser, by noting that while some in his administration were “disturbed” by North Korea’s testing of ballistic missiles earlier this month, the president himself was unbothered. He repeated the sentiment in a joint press conference with Abe, who also sees the missile launches as violating international and UN standards. Overall, Trump seemed to use North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as a foil against Biden, a domestic opponent, and complicated his relationship with Abe. “North Korea fired off some small weapons, which disturbed some of my people, and others, but not me,” Trump tweeted, and repeated with Abe. “I have confidence that Chairman Kim will keep his promise to me.”

Trump seems the only person in public life who thinks so.

Those small weapons Trump referred to were short-range ballistic missiles, one of which flew nearly 300 miles before landing in the sea. That is a direct threat to U.S. ally South Korea, while medium-range missiles would also put Japan in range. So, I guess as long as the rockets can’t reach San Francisco, we’re supposed to be at ease with them. Trump appears so determined to sell his vision of peace with North Korea that he is prepared to back Kim over his advisers, his allies and his fellow Americans. Trumpsaid he agreed with Kim that Biden is a “fool of low I.Q.”

For his part. Abe worked extra hard to show that he and Trump are fast friends and allies, those pesky disagreements notwithstanding. Abe stressed that the two countries’ positions were “the same” toward North Korea, for example, and credited Trump for “breaking the shell of mistrust” with Kim. In turn, Trump was lavish in praise of Abe. Trump signaled that a trade deal that he has been impatient to deliver will be delayed until after July’s Upper House elections in Japan. Trump wants to see Japan cut tariffs for U.S. agricultural products, after the United States’ withdrawal from the 11-nation Trans Pacific Partnership left its exporters at a disadvantage and set a six-month clock to resolve car issues. Abe’s position is that Japan’s car companies have poured money into the U.S. manufacture.

Experts note that Trump could have had most of what he now wants in bilateral negotiations by remaining in the TransPacific agreement, as Canada and Australia now enjoy.

Still Trump beat the drum over overall trade imbalances for Japan over the United States. It produces more of what we want, of course, than the opposite.

Hey, nothing disastrous happened, nothing was broken. But sometimes it is difficult to separate what is true progress from the photo ops.