TOM PLATE WRITES – When President Donald J. Trump abruptly folded his diplomatic tent in Hanoi and flew back to Washington without a de-nuclearization/sanctions-relief deal with North Korea, the temperature in the Vietnamese capital had been pleasantly upper-70s (F). But on landing, the American capital seemed much, much colder in more ways than one. Depressing testimony in Congress from a former inner-circle intimate was painting a sordid picture of Trump’s choppy character, and the lower house, now under the control of bitter, get-even opposition Democrats, was lathered up for a total take-down. Perhaps Mr. Trump should have hunkered down in Hanoi, taking as long as he needed to seal a deal, artfully or not; for at least outside, the crowds on the streets were not waving ‘Impeachment’ signs but welcome ones.
The powers of concentration of America’s 45th president, never in the matter of details rated without peer, must have unraveled further when his attention was diverted by the roaring fire back home. The management of U.S. foreign policy these days is not easy under any circumstance: Just ask Mr. Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama. But it is going to be quite the challenge for the rest of the world to have to deal with an American president constantly off-balance, on his heels, leaning over the precipice of impeachment – and who was not so even-keeled in the first place.
It was Mr. Trump who recast the Sino-US relationship into a tit-for-tat tariff rumble. Now the need to negate that negative energy is urgent, especially with the world economy showing worrisome frailty. Until relatively recently, the word out of Washington was that a draft accord might be close to completion – the two powers signing formally later this month. But having seen the American leader blithely take a walk on the North Korean leader – whether as a textbook negotiating tactic, a flash of immature machismo or out of sheer psychological exhaustion – Beijing is surely wary of putting its leader in a position of leaving a Trump summit with nothing more to show for it than the echo of empty toasts at Mar-a-Lago.
Failure can precede success but too much of it is erodes confidence. Mr. Trump does deserve genuine credit for trying to wrap up a colossal positive with North Korea, but by allowing himself to be diverted by the widening shadow of congressional hearings and the presumed damaging Muller special counsel findings – he increasingly suggests a presidency that looks all but depleted. Many opponents calculate that impeachment is the ‘killer app.” Perhaps – but the possibility of boomerang backlash is barely considered. The lower house of Congress can vote to send to the upper house its recommendation; but the current Senate, under Republican control, will be about as easy to get through as the Himalayas. The very process is full of peril; few really understand all that it entails. Look back to 1868 – the impeachment target is President Andrew Johnson, and the writer of the following is the young Mark Twain: “The multitudes … were waiting for impeachment. They did not know what impeachment was, exactly, but they had a general idea that it would come in the form of an avalanche, or a thunder clap, or that maybe the roof would fall in.” History records that the Senate vote for conviction failed by one vote even as the House had approved the referral 126 to 47.
And so the world awaits as America tries to regain some balance. It’s hard to see how prolonged self-negation will prove healthy. My foreign-policy seminar teachers in graduate school included Theodore Sorensen, President John Kennedy’s right-hand aide, who’d emphasize the importance of intimate intellectual engagement by the president in all major foreign-policy questions, which, he would insist, wind up in the Oval Office and nowhere else. An incumbent president who cannot focus facing an opposition that will not relent its hatred is a formula for a comatose foreign-policy.
Should such be our fate, Americans will have to readjust in dramatic ways. Its responsible media will need to broaden its foreign-policy visage beyond the usual government beats and be more inclusive of other points of energy, expertise and concern. Foreign-leaders who offer peace rather than war need more time in the spotlight. While we can all pray for more trust between Pyongyang and Washington in order to birth at least an interim agreement, in the meantime South Korea itself must be encouraged to press forward and knit up new relationships with the North. The need for humanitarian aid – food, medicine, and massive pediatric assistance – is pressing. Fortunately, while official Washington fiddles in the swamp of impeachment, a non-official America hovers. Outfits such as America’s National Committee on North Korea, the Nautilus Institute in Berkeley and other NGOs must keep their energy and efforts on high. Now is not the time to let despair get to the best of us.
Should the Chinese government simply try to wait this all out? Were such passivity feasible, it might be advisable. But history never goes to sleep. It’s fair to complain that the vituperative Trump tariff thrust sprayed too many economic bullets in too many places. But this temporary American insanity offers Beijing reason to reflect on the internal changes needed to be made for its economy to move forward with enough diversity enough to buoy up 1.4 billion human beings. Not all of Trump’s trade-prompts ricocheting off the wall are as idiotic as the original tariff-triggering itself. Large institutions – a massive country, a venerable religious institution – can benefit from reform and renewal. So long as the current insanity ends soon, the global economy overall might just benefit from the self-examination. China is that consequential, to be sure.
Columnist and university professor Tom Plate is vice president of the Pacific Century Institute, a trans-Pacific non-profit with special focus on the future of the Korean peninsula, and an alliance partner with LMU’s Asia Media International. The original version of this column appeared 12 March 2019 in the South China Morning Post, one of the world’s leading English-language daily newspapers.