Opponents of President Trump have rightfully skewered his performance at the Singapore Summit. But they seem to be attributing his apparent failure to get any meaningful concessions and his brown nosing of a brutal dictator entirely to his many character disorders: he’s too much of a superficial showman, and he has a weird thing for tyrants like Kim and Putin.
No doubt there’s some truth to this, but it’s being used as a convenient excuse to avoid confronting the deeper logic behind the success of Trump and Kim’s relationship.
The truth is, despite the chaos of everything Trump, there’s a pretty clear foreign policy vision once you average everything out. It’s relatively simple, and could be summarized in a few bullet points:
- Trump views the world through the dual lenses of narrow economic self-interest and the necessity of the perception (though not necessarily the reality) of dominance/submission. On the latter point there’s actually some affinity with some of the more postmodernist aspects of the Bush administration.
- Trump views the US led postwar order, including free trade agreements and broad military alliances, not as an opportunity for the United States to preserve its central role in world affairs but as means for weaker countries to abuse and subsist off of US successes. This is of course related to the first point, since the benefits the US receives from the postwar order take the form of relatively abstract, behind the scenes soft power, and concrete military hard power, neither of which Trump seems very concerned about.
- Trump is remarkably consistent in that he respects the self-interest and sovereignty of other countries, frequently commenting that he does not blame other nations for their alleged abuses of the United States. He does not care about human rights in other countries because he does not perceive there being any higher logic to human affairs than the issues in the first bullet point.
When one applies this logic to the situation in the Korean peninsula, the outcome of the summit is not surprising at all. Trump wants to end US military commitments to South Korea, and is happy to obtain an economic partner in the North. The only thing he wants in return for this is the perception of dominance, which he had already obtained by threatening first nuclear war and then later the cancellation of the summit (and the latter for relatively petty reasons). He doesn’t care about the human rights abuses of the Kim regime.
So Trump and Kim’s interests are aligned. They both want to end US military protection of South Korea, they both want economic interconnectedness, and neither of them care about human rights. Kim is happy to allow Trump some degree of status, since Trump (consistent in his respect for other’s self-interest) does not appear to have any need to denigrate Kim in order to feel dominant. In fact, elevating Kim elevates the summit and therefore Trump himself.
The only thing standing in the way of major changes to US foreign policy along these lines is Trump’s opposition in the United States, including in his own executive branch bureaucracy and high level staff.
I am utterly opposed to Trump’s vision of world affairs, as anyone who believes in universal human rights, democracy, or even just a practical perspective on US military defense should be. But defeating what he represents must mean, to some degree, applying the principle of charity, of not simply strawmanning his ideology into narrow ad hominem character assassination (no matter how flagrantly worthy of derision his character is). You can’t win a debate if you’re not addressing the argument being made.
This is a larger issue with the Trump era. His opponents keep falling into making this entirely about Trump’s character, because honestly there’s a lot to hate about it and even modulo policy disagreements there’s a genuine problem there that needs to be dealt with. But there’s also a real ideological challenge being presented alongside that, and the obsession with character to the exclusion of a confrontation on policy can actually provide cover for its success, which we must avoid.
Defeating Trump as a character, and extinguishing the cult of personality surrounding him, is absolutely necessary. But it’s also not sufficient and we shouldn’t let it prevent us from addressing the larger ideological shifts that are occurring.