No one should be rude. Bad manners are not nice. Doesn’t everybody’s mama teach him that? Donald Trump certainly knows how to overdo it, but sometimes a president must be strategically rude to make a necessary point.
The president is on this way home from an exhausting (by the measure of the traveling press) 12-day 5-country Asian odyssey (“if this is Sunday, it must be Manila”) where he talked trade and warned certain of his hosts that a day of reckoning is coming. Asia, like the rest of the world, may be getting accustomed to the sound his voice.
An exception is North Korea, where Kim Jong-un called Mr. Trump’s speech in Seoul, to the national assembly, “reckless remarks by an old lunatic.” This was mild by the standards of Pyongyang, where George W. Bush was called “scum.” Mr. Trump replied with unaccustomed low-key humor (all the more effective for it), asking in a tweet, “why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me ‘old’ when I would NEVER call him ‘short and fat’?” The all-caps were Mr. Trump’s usual rhetorical flourish.
The usual carping in the traveling press was about “optics” and whether the president had hurt someone’s feelings. Mr. Trump reminded the Japanese prime minister in Tokyo that Japan has a pretty good economy, but his was better, but Japan should be satisfied with being No. 2 (which might be unwelcome news in Beijing). The prime minister kept his diplomatic face, though Mr. Trump’s friends at home winced, one remarking that the careless remark was like “going to someone’s home for dinner and telling the hostess that her food was pretty good, but it’s better at home.”
The rest of the world, accustomed to American presidents with a thicker patina of diplomatic manners, is getting used to the Donald’s brash and undiplomatic ways, and they might as well learn to regard them as entertainment.
Some of Mr. Trump’s domestic critics, who remain legion, accuse him of more serious crimes, such as exploding the current international trading system. “To which the most appropriate comment,” observes Irwin Stelzer in the Weekly Standard, is “about time. Some day a wise political analyst will figure out why prior administrations negotiated from a position of weakness, whether with China on trade, Iran on its nuclear program, or Mexico on the meaning of ‘North American content’ enshrined in [the North American Free Trade Agreement]. The attitude seems to have been that any deal is better than no deal, that no deal is a failure, but any deal can be dressed up to look like a win when reported in a pro-administration press.”
This is the complaint that this president, who gets no such help from the media, made so sharply and occasionally eloquently in the 2016 campaign, and why his crowds roared so fiercely when he promised to get better negotiators who would put America first. That sounds like rampant nationalism to the intellectual class who prefer presidents eager to follow the girly men who have given the State Department, always eager to embrace appeasement as a strategy, its reputation for cultivated impotence. But to Middle America it was music.
Middle America, including many voters who are not necessarily fans of Donald Trump, understands how the current trading system, characterized by President Xi Jinping of China as globalist and based on free trade, is actually a fraud, designed by the greediest of capitalists posing as something else. None are greedier and more rampant with their economic plundering than the Chinese.
American companies lusting for access to China’s prosperous billion consumers, and then some, must agree to sign over their intellectual property — their company jewels — to a Chinese partner who will have no impediment to ridding himself of his American partner soon enough, and keeping the jewels.
James Andrew Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies observes that “subsidized Chinese companies operating from a close domestic market and selling to an open international market have an immense advantage.” Michael Schuman in Bloomberg Business Week calculates that “in industries of the future ranging from robotics to electric cards, often backed by a torrent of state aid, the goal is ultimately to freeze out foreign companies from the gargantuan Chinese market, then use it as a launch pad for Chinese powerhouses to expand and compete globally. “When China spits,” went the ancient Asian aphorism, “Asia swims.” China wants to expand the spittle range to include everywhere else.
President Trump may be taking the sage advice of the philosopher Yogi Berra, who famously observed that “you can see a lot by watching.” The president has looked at America’s trade agreements and sees what everybody can see by watching. It’s not a pretty sight.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of the Times.
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