Upon returning home from his weekend visit with Donald Trump, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a Japanese TV station that he has a green light to improve relations with Russia in hopes of softening Moscow’s iron grip on some volcanic islands they have occupied since the end of World War II.
Whereas President Obama asked Abe not to get too chummy with Russia’s murderous dictator, “Trump understands Japan’s (policy) to promote dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin to resolve the territorial issue” over the Kuril Islands, Abe told NHK public television:
Mr Abe said he suggested to Mr Trump the problems of Syria, Ukraine and Iran could not be resolved unless the US and Russian leaders meet face to face.
Mr Abe has held more than a dozen talks with Mr Putin and has described the Russian leader as “a man who keeps his promises.”
“Surprisingly, President Trump is a good listener,” Mr Abe added. “He is open to turning his ears to others, and he is friendly and open. I was able to discuss frankly where Japan is headed to.
Of course, the prime minister comes from a very polite society. He understands that Trump, like Putin, responds well to flattery and stings at criticism, so he would never explain out loud that Trump is a “good listener” because he has nothing intelligent to say.
It’s virtually certain that Trump knew nothing about Japanese foreign policy this time last week, or that he has more than an elementary understanding of the topic now. We get a hint of that learning curve from further coverage of Abe’s TV interview in The Japan Times:
The prime minister said he believes Trump is “gradually” gaining understanding of the significance of the 12-party Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, although Trump has announced the United States will withdraw from it.
Abe also said Trump, who has been critical of the United States’ trade deficit with Japan, now knows that the “(current) structure is different from that of the trade frictions in the 1980s and 1990s.”
Abe said he explained to Trump that exports of Japanese cars are decreasing compared with the 1980s and 1990s, and more Japanese cars are produced in the United States.
Get that? Before Trump met Abe, his vision of Japan’s economic relationship with the United States was stuck in the bygone era of import quotas and shuttered factories — a view that’s out of date by a generation. He’s only just beginning to understand why Barack Obama wanted to secure a regional trade deal that would keep China in check.
Until now, these subjects have been a complete mystery to the newest leader of the free world.
Quite contrary to his campaign bluster, Trump has been a poor dealmaker so far, and his lack of foreign policy knowledge is a big reason why. For example, it took him weeks to transition from dangerous talk with Taiwan to belatedly recognizing the ‘One China’ policy, leaving America in a measurably-weaker bargaining position without gaining anything in the process.
Now Trump envisions a “grand bargain” with Putin. But by encouraging American allies to enter Russia’s orbit on their own, Donald is actually giving up leverage and creating a situation where any joint policy on Syria, Ukraine, or Iran will reflect Moscow’s priorities instead of Washington’s. It’s like he’s not even trying to hide which side he’s really on.
Maybe Donald Trump should adopt a new slogan: Make America Weak Again.