G20 Osaka: the end of American leadership?
An Axis of Authoritarianism – Putin, Xi and Trump – was on disturbing display
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has done his best to hold up the tattered remains of the liberal international order at the G20 Summit in Osaka. He has touted the “Osaka Track,” an attempt to create global rules to govern the flow of digital data and electronic commerce, cooperation to control marine pollution caused by plastics, and standards for infrastructure projects. He spoke again about countering the descent into protectionism, though he may not even succeed in getting a defense of free trade into the final communique.
Despite this rear-guard battle for the liberal order, the dominant actors at the G20 are the standard bearers of the New Authoritarian Order, led by Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, and, of course, US President Donald Trump. On one hand, Putin and Xi put themselves forward at G20 also as defenders of a rules-based system, even allegedly of the free flow of trade. But ideas of liberal society that have always accompanied that rule of law are completely absent from their vision.
Putin made that abundantly clear in a lengthy interview with the Financial Times Editor Lionel Barber ahead of the G20 meeting. The entire interview is worth reading – the Russian leader speaks cogently and with intelligence. Attention naturally focused, however, on a particular moment toward the end of the interview in which Putin describes the end of liberalism, embracing, without even a hint of irony, the racialist anti-immigrant views of his ideological soulmate, Donald Trump.
This Axis of Authoritarianism was on disturbing display in Osaka Friday when Trump met Putin for a bilateral meeting, the first since the much-noted Helsinki meeting. As reporters entered the room, Trump and Putin could be overheard chummily discussing their mutual hatred for a free press. “Get rid of them. Fake news is a great term, isn’t it? You don’t have this problem in Russia but we do,” Trump said to his brother in arms.
Putin was quick to reply, in English, “We also have. It’s the same,” he said with a smile.
For anyone even remotely familiar with the recent period in Russia, much less its past – and I write as a former Moscow correspondent and as the father of a current Moscow correspondent – this is beyond horrifying. One must only think of our brave comrades in Russia, people like Anna Politkovskaya, who have given their lives to fight for a free press, and of countless others who have fled the country to keep practicing their craft. Only a few weeks ago, the phony arrest of a Russian investigative journalist on trumped-up drug charges triggered a rare outburst of civil protest – and forced his release.
To deepen the injury, as the reporters shouted the questions before being led out of the room, Trump made sarcastic jokes about having discussed Russian election meddling with Putin. It is hard to imagine a more visible display of the profound abandonment of the values that have underpinned American foreign policy in the last century than this convivial meeting in Osaka.
The two men spent 90 minutes together – an interesting contrast to the 35 minutes spent with Osaka host Abe, where Trump seemed mainly interested in talking about trade and his friend Kim Jong Un. The Japanese Prime Minister was compelled to spend his time doing damage control for the reports that Trump had talked about ending the US-Japan Security Treaty and the repeat in a Fox Business interview of his 1980s era views on Japan as a defense freeloader which would stand by and watch American fight WW III on its “Sony television.” Japanese officials, along with John Bolton and others, spent much time denying the original story.
Japanese leaders are now getting used to hearing these remarks – Trump is like an old scratchy vinyl record, one pressed in about 1986, where the needle is stuck in one grove and can’t advance. The short-term damage is quite manageable and Abe will likely not suffer much, if at all, provided the G20 meeting ends without any major disruption of the planned events for Saturday, Tokyo time.
But a warm and fuzzy meeting that Abe held with Xi ahead of the start of the G20 gathering should be read as signal, yet again, of the long-term danger of the abandonment of American leadership to the New Authoritarian Order. “A new atmosphere, which we had not seen for many years, is forming,” Xi reportedly told Abe, a sentiment which the Japanese leader also shared.
At best, this is a form of soft hedging by Tokyo, against not only the retreat of American leadership of the liberal international order, including the gathering trade war with China, but also the scary threat of leaving Japan on its own to face the security challenges in the region.
In a dark mood, which he later admitted may have been fueled by too much alcohol (I know how that happens), a senior Japanese diplomatic journalist shared this view with me:
POTUS is foolishly pushing Japan toward China. Behold what’s going to happen today – one big cocktail ceremony of Sino-Japan friendship thankfully framed by a belligerent president of the United States.
Japan’s current standing is such that she relies on the US in terms of security and depends on China in terms of economy, but this POTUS’s thoughtless remarks on US-Japan alliance are gradually demolishing this balance and inviting an environment that leaves no choice for Japan but to strike a deal with Beijing. At least that’s what some part of Beijing is gradually noticing.
I do not think that’s going to happen in any near future, considering the Japanese public’s steadfast adherence to American culture including MLB and NBA and also the fact that for now, Beijing is stupid enough to continue threatening Japan in the East China and South China Seas.
But when/if Beijing realizes that it is far more effective to lure Japan by benign behaviors, I’m not sure what chemistry might emerge in this Asian mercantilist neighboring country of the Big Lion. Again, I don’t think the Japanese public chooses China over the US in any near future, but historically it is far more natural for any neighboring countries including Japan to obey China more than any western countries, which is what thousands of years historical narrative tells us.