Barack Obama tried to be the first Pacific President. He attempted to pivot America’s grand strategy eastwards in order to adapt to a changing world. He failed, by and large. Donald Trump has shown that he is moving further east. In fact, after his meeting with Kim Jong-un in Singapore today, Trump could lay claim to being the first truly Global American President.
No doubt that sentence sounds ridiculous. Trump is an America First nationalist who believes in tariffs and borders; he stands for everything we’ve been told globalisation isn’t. But there is a difference between globalisation as a supranational faith in the free-market; and globalisation as a process that is actually happening. In the real world, globalisation has replaced the old divisions that existed between Capitalist West and Communist East; Trump, more by instinct than anything else, appears to understand that.
Trump doesn’t care much for Nato and the defence of the west. He cares about international hotel chains, golf courses and beach-condos, about ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in the game of life. He doesn’t speak the language of diplomacy; he speaks the language of real-estate and the luxury global lifestyle. This doesn’t make him a beautiful orator, like Obama. But it means he communicates across cultures in a way that no other leader of the free world has done.
And it means that, more than any other western leader, Donald Trump speaks Asian. His gestures to the east strike us, exhausted western snobs that we are, as intolerably cheesy or naff. But Asians are less familiar with capitalism, and not as sensitive to trashy consumerism. Trump is himself a global business brand, and for most Asians that is a good thing. It’s why, as Boris Johnson put it last year, he is able to penetrate ‘corners of the global consciousness that I think few other presidents have ever done.’
Take the video he showed Kim today on an iPad, to demonstrate just how prosperous his North Korea could be if only he chose the right path:
The text reads like some godawful martial-arts movie trailer crossed with a corporate advertisement for an ambitious construction project: ‘Destiny Pictures presents a story of opportunity. A new story. A new beginning. One of Peace. Two men, two leaders, one destiny.’ It reminded me a lot of this epically absurd advertisement for Sylvester Stallone’s ‘Chaos pen’. Perhaps they used the same content providers.
But, in some peculiar way, this cod spiritual gibberish works. It cuts across boundaries.
Trump has talked before of how he sees the Middle East Peace process as a real-estate problem. He sees North Korea in the same terms. ‘They have great beaches!’ he exclaimed in the press conference after his meeting today. ‘You see that whenever they’re exploding canons into the ocean, right? So I said ‘Boy look at that beach. Wouldn’t it make a great condo behind?’ — and I explained it.’ We can all chortle as much as want, and we will. Clearly, however, Kim was not put off or offended by the suggestion. It’s quite likely he relished the thought.
Trump’s tour of Asia last year was his first foreign-policy success. Thanks to his experience in business, he understands the importance of cheesy gestures in Far Eastern culture. He gave Japanese Prime Minister a baseball cap that said: ‘Donald & Shinzo, Make Alliance Even Greater’. He presented China’s premier Xi Jinping with a video, again on an iPad, of his six-year-old granddaughter, Arabella Kushner, wearing a mini geisha dress and reciting songs and poems in Mandarin. The stunt went largely unnoticed on western social media accounts; those who did spot it tended to cringe. Yet on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent to Twitter, little Arabella became a hit — she has been since she first sang for Xi in Florida earlier that year. The latest Arabella clip got millions of Weibo views. Weibo users said it was ‘extremely cute’ and ‘the best gift’ Trump could have given his hosts. Awww.
International relations experts will roll their eyes and say none of this matters in realpolitik: Trump’s salesman diplomacy cannot change the dynamics of great power relations. Maybe not. But after today’s summit with Kim, it seems obvious that the American president’s global business language, his real-estate politik speaks more clearly than anything that has been tried before.