Earlier today, the summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe concluded, with both leaders leaving Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, located near Palm Beach, Florida. For Donald Trump, it was an opportunity to further enhance his diplomatic skills towards foreign policy. On the other side, Shinzo Abe sought reassurances regarding the U.S.-Japan security alliance. In addition, Abe brought with him a number of economic package proposals.
In theory, the summit should go along without a hitch. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was the first foreign leader to meet Donald Trump when he became the President-elect. By all accounts, that initial meeting appeared to be fruitful and productive, despite Trump’s constant criticism of Japan relations as it relates to trade, as well as perceived unfair balances in security. But for those hoping to solidify an important element of U.S. foreign policy, it’s the underlying message that got lost in translation.
There’s a saying that actions speak louder than words. Donald Trump made a critical misstep in presenting a poor image of the importance of U.S. and Japan relations. During the ceremonial gift exchange between the two leaders, Shinzo Abe presented the President with a near $3,800 golf club, which consisted of a gold-colored head that symbolized the latter’s penchant for the color. In return, Trump presented the Prime Minister with a golf shirt.
That has to go down as one of the cheapest gifts any U.S. President has given a foreign leader, particularly one that is as important as Japan. This isn’t just a foreign policy faux pas — Japan relations are critical in the face of a rising China. If anything, Japan is an anchor in the Pacific theater. The other Asian countries that are opposed to China aren’t big enough and don’t have the leverage to do anything if push comes to shove.
It’s also brutally awkward in the sense that British Prime Minister Theresa May received from Donald Trump an “1865 Edition of Harper’s Weekly magazine depicting Abraham Lincoln’s second inauguration. He also gave her a hand-printed excerpt from President Lincoln’s from his second inaugural address.” What’s intriguing here is that Great Britain is only a shell of its former self. Should the U.K. go down, the entirety of western Europe is under the NATO alliance, which is aligned with U.S. foreign policy.
In other words, there are multiple candidates that can geopolitically replace Great Britain. Japan cannot, which is why Japan relations have been bolstered by prior administrations. Of course, this is part of Donald Trump’s posturing of strength, the message of America First. At the same time, such patriotism shouldn’t promote facile behavior. If Trump doesn’t recognize the importance of international partnerships, it could be a long four years for all of us.