Anyone who's watched Ken Burns’s flawed but absorbing documentary about the Vietnam War must have been struck by the interplay between presidential politics in Washington and the rhythm of combat in Southeast Asia.
This reached its climax with the Watergate scandal, which brought president Richard Nixon down and which started with his attempts to spy on opponents of the war.
The same interplay is working on steroids with Donald Trump’s tour of Asia. The indictments handed out last week by special prosecutor Robert Mueller to figures in the Trump presidential campaign, including ex-chairman Paul Manafort, suggest that a new Watergate may be in the offing.
It also revealed the Goodfellas-type world Trump inhabits. According to the Financial Times, “this week Mr Trump said that he barely knew Mr Manafort before he became his campaign manager.
In fact, they were introduced in 1979 by Roy Cohn, the legendary New York lawyer, who was Mr Trump’s mentor, and who represented the city’s largest mafia figures, including John Gotti and Anthony ‘Fat Tony’ Salerno.
“Mr Trump used Salerno’s construction company, S & A Concrete, to build many of his towers. When Mr Manafort set up his lobbying firm in 1980, Mr Trump was his first client.” And, to close the circle, in the 1950s Cohn was chief counsel to Senator Joe McCarthy during his anti-Communist witch-hunts, which helped to make Nixon’s career.
Now Trump is escaping the pressures in Washington to visit Northeast Asia—home to three of the biggest economies in the world (China, Japan, and South Korea), and a region that has been roiled in recent months by his confrontation with the North Korea regime.
Kim Jong-un’s regime is continuing to develop the capability to target nuclear weapons on the mainland United States. It has long held South Korean capital Seoul hostage with conventional missiles and artillery targeted on the city.
Trump’s secretary of state Rex Tillerson was expressing the conventional wisdom in Washington that war with North Korea is not an option when he said at the end of September that he was seeking a dialogue with Kim Jong-un. Trump immediately undercut him, tweeting that Tillerson was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man”.
Trump’s rhetoric makes him a less than welcome guest in South Korea. However, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, who has his own regional ambitions, has endorsed Trump’s declaration that the “era of strategic patience” with North Korea is over.
The tour takes in Beijing as well. Nixon famously went there in 1972 to meet the founding fathers of the People’s Republic, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. He was looking for help in ending the Vietnam War, and for a counterweight to the Soviet Union in the Cold War.
But Nixon was also doing a favour to the Chinese Communist Party leadership. The inner-party turmoil of the Cultural Revolution had left China dangerously isolated. A border war with the Soviet Union in 1969 came, according to one Chinese historian, close to a nuclear clash until Nixon intervened to warn Moscow off.
Trump, by contrast, will be visiting a Beijing where the recent party congress crowned president Xi Jinping “core” leader and wrote his “thought” into the Communist Party constitution. Xi doesn’t need any favours from Trump.
He already received a wonderful free gift at the beginning of Trump’s presidency, when Trump withdrew the US from the Trans-Pacific Pact—a trade deal carefully crafted by Barack Obama to isolate and constrain China.
Trump’s government by tweet and protectionist rhetoric has allowed Xi to pose as the reliable guardian of contemporary neoliberal globalisation.
While US trade policy remains a mystery, Beijing presses ahead with its vast Belt and Road Initiative, building new transport infrastructure that will bind much of Eurasia to the Chinese economy.
The US remains the world’s biggest economy and far and away the strongest military power. But Trump’s erratic and embattled leadership is allowing Washington’s rivals to recalibrate global geopolitics.