President Donald Trump plunged back into the world of international diplomacy Friday with characteristic provocation, keeping some of America’s closest allies, including his hosts, off balance even as he sought advantage on an array of economic and security disputes with profound consequences.
Trump opened a series of high-stakes meetings with world leaders gathered in Osaka, Japan, for an international summit after calling into question the very foundation of the relationship between the United States and two of its most important friends, Japan and Germany, and lashing out at a third partner, India.
The Japanese leaders hosting the meetings were still reeling Friday morning at the president’s attack on the mutual defense treaty that has been the bedrock between Washington and Tokyo for nearly seven decades.
Before arriving in Osaka, Trump complained that under the treaty, Japan would not come to the aid of the United States if it were attacked and instead would “watch it on a Sony television.”
German leaders have grown more accustomed to shrugging off Trump’s attacks on Berlin as a security freeloader taking advantage of America’s defense umbrella while India was left trying to manage the president’s complaints about its trade policies without provoking him into the sort of tariff war escalation he has engaged in with China.
The choice of targets seemed directly tied to the president’s schedule of meetings Friday. He was set to sit down with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, the host of the annual Group of 20 gathering in Osaka, and then jointly with Abe and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India. Then he was to meet separately with Modi. After that, he was scheduled to sit down with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.
By contrast, Trump said nothing critical before arriving in Osaka about the fourth leader on his diplomatic schedule for Friday, President Vladimir Putin of Russia, whose government waged a systematic campaign to interfere in U.S. elections in 2016 and has arrested two Americans on what critics consider false charges.
Nor did he say anything negative about his breakfast date for Saturday morning, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, who was just accused by the United Nations of having most likely orchestrated the murder and dismemberment of a Saudi journalist living in the United States.
In saving his critiques for America’s friends, Trump repeated his approach to visiting Britain earlier in the month.
When a reporter mentioned past criticism of him by the Duchess of Sussex, the former Meghan Markle, Trump said he did not realize “she was nasty,” then denied saying it, despite a tape recording of him doing so. He also called Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, a “stone cold loser” who is doing a terrible job of running Britain’s capital.
In the latest case, he lashed out at Japan’s mutual defense treaty with the United States, the underpinning of the relationship between the two countries dating back to the early years after World War II. After Bloomberg News reported that he had privately talked about pulling out of the treaty, he raised the subject without even being asked about it during an interview on Fox Business Network on Wednesday.
“We have a treaty with Japan,” Trump said. “If Japan is attacked, we will fight World War III. We will go in, and we will protect them, and we will fight with our lives and with our treasure. We will fight at all costs, right? But if we’re attacked, Japan doesn’t have to help us at all. They can watch it on a Sony television, the attack.”
The United States signed the treaty with Japan in 1951 after forcing a new constitution on the country that disavowed a full military of its own beyond self-defense forces. Through the treaty, the United States secured the right to station forces in Japan, giving it an important base of operations in the Pacific to counter the Soviet Union during the Cold War. In exchange, the United States promised to defend Japan if it were attacked.
The treaty has been updated since. Among those who signed the 1960 version of the treaty were Douglas MacArthur II, the U.S. ambassador to Japan and nephew of the famed general, and Nobusuke Kishi, the prime minister and Abe’s grandfather.
In Tokyo, Yoshihide Suga, the chief Cabinet secretary and the government’s top spokesman, on Thursday rejected assertions that the treaty was unfair. “The obligations of the United States and Japan” are “balanced between both countries,” he said at a news conference, according to Reuters.
After assailing the treaty with Japan, Trump went on to repeat what has become a perennial attack on Merkel’s Germany. “We pay for close to 100 per cent of NATO,” he said. “People don’t know that. We pay for close to that because Germany doesn’t pay what they’re supposed to pay, and out of the 28 countries, seven are paid up.”
As he has consistently done since taking office, Trump mischaracterized how NATO works and gave a false number about America’s share of the financial burden. NATO has a budget to cover common civilian and military costs, and the United States pays 22 per cent of that, according to a formula based on national income. None of the NATO allies are in arrears on their contributions.
What Trump was referring to was a commitment by NATO allies to each spend 2 per cent of their national economies on their own armed forces by 2024. He was correct that only seven countries meet that goal — the United States with 3.4 per cent, along with Greece, Estonia, Britain, Romania, Poland and Latvia — and Germany spends only 1.4 per cent on defense. But neither Germany nor any of the others are obliged to “pay up” to anyone other than their own militaries.
Collectively, estimated military spending by all NATO members in 2019 comes to US$1-trillion, according to an update issued this week. Military spending by the United States represents 70 per cent of that total, not 100 per cent, and even that includes U.S. spending on forces deployed in the Pacific or the Middle East, not just those committed to defending Europe.
Trump’s attack on Modi’s India concerned not security but another of the president’s favorite topics, tariffs.
“I look forward to speaking with Prime Minister Modi about the fact that India, for years having put very high Tariffs against the United States, just recently increased the Tariffs even further,” the president wrote on Twitter from Air Force One as it made its way across the Pacific Ocean. “This is unacceptable and the Tariffs must be withdrawn!”
What he did not say in his tweet was that India’s action in raising tariffs on 28 categories of imports came in response to Trump’s decision to increase tariffs on imported aluminum and steel and his decision in May to revoke a preferential trade status for more than US$5-billion in imports from India.
Upon landing in Osaka on Thursday night, Trump headed straight to dinner with Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia. While quarreling with other allies, Trump this week came to Morrison’s defense with a tweet supporting his government’s hard line toward refugees and asylum-seekers. In the tweet, Trump featured images of signs saying “You Will Not Make Australia Home” and “No Way.”
“These flyers depict Australia’s policy on Illegal Immigration,” Trump wrote. “Much can be learned!”
At a brief appearance with Morrison before dinner, the president rejected the suggestion of an Australian reporter that his “America First” foreign policy often struck allies as “America alone.”
“We’ve been very good to our allies,” Trump said. “We work with our allies. We take care of allies.”