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‘Wrecking ball’ diplomacy

July 18,2018
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A six-meter high balloon of an infantilized U.S. President Donald Trump flies as a protest of his visit in Parliament Square in London on July 13, 2018. [AP/YONHAP]
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Bae Myung-bok
The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

U.S. President Donald Trump is notorious for stunning the world with his unconventional ways, but he raised the bar on the upsets he is capable of in Brussels during the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit, in the United Kingdom, and lastly Helsinki for a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He shocked his European hosts, traditional allies, Americans at home, and even supporters in the Republican Party with his “wrecking ball” diplomacy. Just as a giant steel ball swings from a derrick to demolish old buildings, Trump was shameless and merciless in coming down on Uncle Sam’s 70-year-old alliance with NATO members to the extent of demoralizing European leaders. Winding up his European tour, he provoked from EU leaders fundamental suspicions about America as an ally.

Trump is toppling the post-war global order. He pulled the U.S. out of landmark accords that the U.S. played central roles in — such as the Paris Climate Agreement, the Iranian nuclear deal, the United Nations Human Rights Council, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and multilateral or bilateral free trade agreements — claiming they undermined his “America First” slogan. The Financial Times called him the “disrupter-in-chief.”

At the NATO summit, Trump criticized other members for their “delinquent” and insufficient military spending and threatened to pull the U.S. out of the 29-member security alliance if other members do not immediately raise their defense spending up to 2 percent of their respective gross domestic products as they promised to do by 2014. (U.S. defense spending accounts for around 3.5 percent of its GDP). Even Trump’s aides were stunned when he scolded NATO members for not increasing their spending to 4 percent of GDP. He may have been frustrated about EU members dragging their feet, but he didn’t need to insult longtime friends of the U.S.

Trump claimed Germany was a “captive” of Russia for relying heavily on Russian natural gas. During his visit to the U.K., he ignored royal protocols before the 92-year-old British monarch, openly criticized Prime Minister Theresa May for her dubious stance on the British exit from the EU, and went so far as to say that her political rival — former foreign secretary Boris Johnson — would make a “great prime minister.” He insulted his British counterpart, and meddled in her political affairs. Some special relationship!

Trump’s European tour showed a pattern in his foreign affairs strategy — all talk and no essence. He causes an uproar and then claims he achieved something. Although he achieved little beyond angering his NATO allies, Trump claimed his stunts strengthened NATO. He cared little about the damage done on the alliance by the breaking of trust.

He ended up only helping Russia, which ardently desires a breakup of NATO. Norms-busting, shamelessness and self-indulgence make up Trump’s foreign policy.

Ironically, his idiosyncratic style has brought about unprecedented momentum on the Korean Peninsula. No U.S. leader would have thought of sitting down with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. But we do not know what Trump will do if he runs out of patience and is challenged about the scant progress on denuclearization. He may reconsider a military option. South Korean President Moon Jae-in will vehemently oppose it citing the promises he made in his inter-Korea summits. Then Trump may threaten to break up the decades-old security alliance with South Korea. Seoul may face the worst possible scenario of watching Pyongyang earn recognition as a nuclear weapons state and dealing with a Washington that no longer wants to protect it.

For Trump, there are only fans and enemies, wrote Ivan Krastev, chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies and a permanent fellow at the Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna, in a recent op-ed in the New York Times. A populist leader chasing votes doesn’t need to solve any problems. He only needs to do things differently from the mainstream. To Trump, old friends and allies are a hassle that only demand responsibility, consistency and mutual respect. All he need is fans that stay loyal no matter what.

Krastev advised European leaders to learn to live in a world where America is not their ally. They must look to their own security rather than relying on the U.S. and unite.

South Korea must take the same advice and ready itself for the possibility of Trump trashing the bilateral alliance. We must shake off our blind faith in the U.S.

We must strengthen our defense capability and build diplomatic strategies to better leverage the inter-Korean relationship. Moreover, we must brace ourselves and build a defense against the possibility of Trump’s wrecking ball heading toward us.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 17, Page 31