BOLTON WARNS JAPAN TO IMPLEMENT MEASURES TO DEFEND ITSELF
The Japan Institute for National Fundamentals (JINF), a private think tank that I head in Tokyo, holds a study group meeting every Friday morning. At our meetings, prominent scholars, researchers, and journalists discuss a wide range of issues. A recent topic was The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir by John Bolton, President Trump’s former national security advisor. Bolton resigned last September after falling out of favor with him. He served Trump for 17 months.
I was pleasantly surprised that Professor Yoichi Shimada of Fukui Prefectural University had given the memoir an early read on his Kindle. Reluctant to read so voluminous a book (nearly 600 pages) on my own Kindle, as I was afraid it would surely be taxing to my eyes, I myself waited until I could buy a hard copy.
Major US and European dailies have already done ample reviews about the memoir, generally voicing strongly critical opinions of Trump. Bolton criticizes Trump as being “unfit for office. I don’t think he has the competence to carry out the job.” He also points out that he wrote the book in order to prevent Trump’s reelection in November. No wonder the memoir is extremely critical of Trump as president.
Bolton depicts in great detail the many heads of states Trump has met and how he dealt with each of them. Perhaps reflecting the author’s methodical personality, the memoir is packed with detailed incidents, each filled with his anti-Trump sentiments. This prompts one to question whether revealing this much about a sitting president is appropriate and whether this may not run counter to America’s national interests. Little would the president, prone to making impromptu remarks, have expected that his words would be brought to light in such a fashion.
On the other hand, I feel one should view Bolton’s work as a precious record that deserves to be read thoroughly in coming to grips with how Trump’s foreign policy is formulated.
At the helm of the world’s strongest nation, a US president is hugely responsible for sustaining world order, whether he likes it or not. He will not be able to perform his duty properly without being abreast of all types of information pertinent to the world situation. Especially when the world is threatened by China’s hungry drive for hegemony, one strongly calls on a US president to be wise in the interest of the free world.
Trump’s Ploy: Intuitions and Ad Libs
A US president traditionally is expected to receive top-notch intelligence briefings every morning. For a little over two months until he moves into the White House, a president-elect also customarily attends a special series of lectures to prepare him for office.
According to Bolton, however, Trump has refused to attend most of the briefings by America’s intelligence apparatus programmed for him, including the CIA.
Even after entering the White House, Trump “generally had two intelligence briefings per week, and in most of those, he spoke at greater length than the briefers, often on matters completely unrelated to the subjects at hand.” Obviously, intelligence specialists had a difficult time trying to keep their president abreast of the classified or critical information America has, as well as the pertinent information he should naturally be provided as president.
George W. Bush was in sharp contrast to Trump. Almost without exception, Bush made it a rule to wake up early every morning, jog, and get properly dressed before reading the Bible. He was already in the Oval Office a little before 7 a.m., listening to the day’s intelligence briefing the first thing in the morning. In his memoir Decision Points Bush writes about having kept this regular schedule throughout his two terms at the White House—quite a difference from Trump, who shows up at his executive office just barely before noon.
With Trump behaving as he does, notes Bolton, his policies, including foreign affairs, generally reflect occasional intuitions and ad libs rather than a well-thought-out strategy. Bolton explains:
On December, 2018, the G-20 heads of state conference was held in Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina. The conference included a summit between Trump and Xi Jinping. Using tariffs on Chinese imports as a bargaining chip, the US side delivered the unmistakable message that it wanted China to implement structural reform—abstaining from intellectual property theft, forced technological transfer, and other behavior the US finds unacceptable.
As it turned out, Xi proved to be several notches above Trump as a crafty negotiator. Bolton writes that Xi started by first complimenting Trump during dinner: “Xi began by telling Trump how wonderful he was, laying it on thick. One highlight came when Xi said he wanted to work with Trump for six more years.”
Trump replied that “people were saying that the two-term constitutional limit on Presidents should be repealed for him,” according to Bolton.
Xi did not comment further on this matter then. But Bolton quotes Xi as calling Trump on the phone about four weeks later, on December 29 to say:
“China hoped Trump would have another term by amending the Constitution so he could stay longer.”
Tough Times ahead for Japan
Trump must have been greatly tickled to hear what Xi had to say. But why did Xi say that to Trump after such a lapse of time since their last summit in Buenos Aires? Bolton observes that Xi “read steadily through note cards” throughout his talk with Trump, doing absolutely no ad libs, unlike his American counterpart. All of Xi’s remarks were obviously “hashed out arduously in advance planning for this summit,” says the author.
The Chinese side must have smiled mockingly at this unexpected show of Trump’s narcissism and, back in Beijing, analyzed his remarks in great detail. That I suspect led to Xi calling Trump in late December. One cannot be sure to what extent China’s elaborate flattery has worked to its advantage. But at least Trump did not seem to be displeased with the sweet talk. In Buenos Aires, Xi inculcated in Trump a sense that he might not need to view China as the threat it is portrayed in The Hundred-Year Marathon by China expert Michael Pillsbury.
Pillsbury’s work, published in 2014, was a best seller, meticulously depicting China’s dream of excelling the US and towering over the world by 2049, when Beijing will mark the centennial of the foundation of the People’s Republic of China. Pillsbury, who once was positively pro-Chinese, has since become rigidly anti-Chinese—a “panda hugger” turned a “panda slugger,” so to speak—and is now deeply involved in the formulation of China policy for the Trump administration.
I don’t believe Xi would have much to gain by denying Pillsbury’s assertions to Trump now. But at least he may have succeeded in planting a seed of doubt in Trump’s mind about the credibility of his book. It may just work for Beijing one day.
At this juncture, nobody can tell how the November US presidential election will turn out. But one thing is certain: there will be tough times ahead for Japan. The US-China conflict will continue to deepen while China will intensify its global offensive more aggressively than ever, claiming to be the world’s first nation to have stemmed the Wuhan virus.
While he places full confidence in, and attaches great importance to, his friendship with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Trump is clearly unhappy about the US-Japan Security Treaty, which he views as grossly unfair to the US. Whether the US will continue to function as a spear for Japan’s security is strictly up to Japan. Our failure to set forth a solid system enabling Japan to fundamentally protect itself on its own will get us into real trouble. That, I believe, is the warning Bolton sounds for Japan in his controversial memoir. (The End)
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 909 in the July 16, 2020 issue of The Weekly Shincho)