Playing into Xi’s hands

Monday was Memorial Day, the day America takes off to honour its war dead and celebrate the start of summer. The great and the good nowadays pay their respects via tweet. Donald Trump, neither great nor good, tweeted a tribute to himself. Referring to the ghosts of Normandy, Iwo Jima, Chosin, Ia Drang and countless other fields, he boasted how proud of him they would be for today’s economy, concluding exuberantly: “Nice!”

My point is not that he is a repellent human being. That is already well established.  What interests me more is the encouraging message his twitter-spew sends to all who yearn to see America in retreat.

It confirms that the US is led by an insecure, autocratic and vainglorious man who wants to believe he is uniquely clever but in truth knows and feels no history, reads no books, cannot be briefed and is entirely self-obsessed. This is the lens through which to view the curious off-again, on-again bromance between Trump and North Korea’s uber-thug Kim Jong Un, in which China is quietly operating as matchmaker.

In his tweets, a toxic smog of bluster, lies and crank conspiracy theory, Trump is telling any sentient observer that he is in a desperate state of mind — scared of what special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is turning up (and not just about the role Russia played in getting him elected), and no less worried that the Democrats will take control of the House of Representatives in November and vote to impeach him. He is crying out for help.

One cannot blame Kim or, rather more importantly, China’s Xi Jinping, for reading things that way and making the most of it.

The fate of the Kim dynasty depends on China, today no less than it did in 1950 when Mao sent 400 000 People’s Volunteer Army conscripts to their deaths to rescue founder Kim Il Sung (the Americans lost 34 000). Ninety percent of North Korea’s trade is through China. China, aspiring hegemon, wants to see US military footprint in the region shrivel and its alliances “anaesthetised”, in the phrase of Michael Green, director of Asian studies at Georgetown University.

Trump has already proven himself an able geostrategic gas-passer, pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership the moment he took office. He has dismayed allies far more than foes with wild threats of tariffs on steel, aluminium and cars. He has complained, ignorantly, that Seoul has not been paying adequately for the US military tripwire that guarantees it against attack from the North. In February, according to the NBC television network, he had to restrained from pulling US forces out of the Korean peninsular altogether.

If I’m Xi, I am seeing a huge opportunity here to hasten America’s abandonment of East Asia. From a position of weakness, Trump is effectively pleading with the Chinese leader to orchestrate a deal, any deal, he can use to con voters and the Nobel jury into thinking him a statesman and saving his presidency.

Xi, playing chess while Trump fumbles tiddlywinks, seeks to replace the US as South Korea’s security blanket. To that end, Beijing wants the Korean War, suspended by an armistice since 1953, officially over on terms acceptable to Pyongyang so that the rationale for a US military presence falls away and Seoul no longer sees its relationship with Washington in existential terms.

From Xi’s standpoint, Trump must be a dream come true — and he did not even have to brainwashed first in Manchuria. Helping keep him in office makes eminent sense. And of course, it he ever gets uppity about Chinese trade policy or sanctions-busting by a Chinese phone maker, he’s for sale. Just invest in a Trump-branded development somewhere or give his daughter a few more patents, and he’ll calm down nicely.




The first triplets born in Zimbabwe after independence were American, much to Robert Mugabe’s irritation.  Their father was the Hungarian refugee Donald Trump has finally got around to asking the Senate to confirm as his assistant secretary of state for Africa.

Tibor Nagy was an admin officer at the US embassy in Lusaka in 1980 when his wife, Eva Jane, a Texas farmer’s daughter who had been his college sweetheart, went into labour. She had a bad case of toxemia. The nearest hospital equipped to save her was in Harare.

Nagy, 69, spent almost all of his 25-year career as a foreign service officer in one or other African post, ending as ambassador in Ethiopia (during the Ethiopian-Eritrean war) and Guinea, before returning, in 2003, to his alma mater, Texas Tech University, to head its international affairs programme.

In 2010 he sat down to be interviewed for a candid oral history. That he cleared the transcript for public release suggests he was not expecting a return to African diplomacy.

As a child in Budapest, he wore the red kerchief of the Communist Young Pioneers, it being safer to conform. His father, an army officer, fought the Nazis on the Eastern Front only to be charged with being a western agent after the war. Stalin’s death saved him from execution, but not before the authorities had persuaded his wife — Nagy’s mother — to divorce him if she wanted to keep their child.

Spared, he supported the uprising against the Soviet puppet regime in 1956. When it failed, he fled to Austria with his son, second wife and her children. The US welcomed them in 1957. They made their home in Washington. Nagy Sr. went on to a successful career in the US Agency for International Development.

Most of the kids at Nagy Jr.’s elementary school were black. When they went on to middle school together, he was placed on a higher track. “I am convinced to this day it was based on skin colour because those kids were just as sharp as I was.”

Needless to say, he grew up staunchly anti-communist. In 1964, he went door-to-door for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater and has remained unabashedly loyal to the party ever since. He failed his first foreign service exam. On his successful second try, he was asked to name his two favourite presidents. Theodore Roosevelt, he said, then, less predictably, Richard Nixon.

State Department careers are compartmented into various “cones”. Political and economic tend to be the ones to which high fliers are assigned. Nagy found himself in administration, making sure his colleagues were properly housed, fed, transported, equipped and protected.

By design or good fortune, his first assignments were to small or unpopular hardship posts — after Zambia, the Seychelles, Mengistu’s Ethiopia, Togo, Cameroon — where he could step in as de facto deputy head of mission and build a reputation for being an indispensable jack-of-all-trades. Among his many adventures were a near death experience in the Seychelles where a Tanzanian soldier put a gun to his head mistaking him for one of Bob Denard’s dogs of war.

Reading his oral history, I incline to the view that he is coming back to Washington not out of any admiration for the xenophobe, immigrant-bashing, trash-talking Trump but from a sense of duty to the country and its foreign service — which the Trumpists have been doing their utmost to degrade — and from a genuine affection for the continent and its people. He may have bided his time until being sure that the new secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, would have his back.

As the Roman historian Tacitus wrote of his father-in-law, Julius Agricola, a most able proconsul who served the depraved Domitian, “even under bad emperors there can be great men”.