The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s know-nothing approach to foreign policy isn’t just embarrassing. It’s also dangerous.

President Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Kasumigaseki Country Club in Kawagoe, Japan, on Nov 5. (Franck Robichon/POOL/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

The 45th president doesn’t really know very much. I don’t think that counts as news by now, does it?

Even so, President Trump’s antics on his current trip to Asia are still pretty bewildering. “Try building your cars in the United States instead of shipping them over,” he told a group of Japanese business executives — who knew perfectly well, since they’re Japanese business executives, that that’s exactly what they’ve been doing for the past forty years or so. Right now, of course, three-quarters of the Japanese cars sold in the United States are built here. Trump actually seemed to reference this, vaguely, in another part of his remarks — which made what he said even more confusing.

At another point, he tried selling his Japanese hosts on the virtues of U.S. military hardware: “We made the greatest military equipment in the world. There’s nothing close. [Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe] is ordering a lot of military equipment, as he should be, given what’s happening with one of your neighbors.” Japan and the United States have been in a military alliance since 1952. In other words, they’re pretty familiar with the stuff we make by now. Maybe that’s why this is the first time I can recall a U.S. president making a sales pitch to Tokyo about the quality of our defense industry.

Lucky for us, the Japanese are masters of the fine art of discretion. They know a lot about how to make awkward people feel at ease, and they’ve already shown that they know exactly how to handle our Toddler in Chief. They made sure that he spent little of his time in meetings and substantive discussions and lots of time on the golf course. They made sure to give him a cool hat, and to ensure that he has the food he likes, and to set up a meeting with the guy who did the “Pen Pineapple Apple Pen” song.

You can’t fault them for it. This is the same president who told his audience in Tokyo how surprised he was when he began to field calls from foreign leaders after Election Day: “And after I had won, everybody was calling me from all over the world. I never knew we had so many countries.” He probably meant this as a joke — which is what he usually claims when he says something that sounds stupid. You know, though, that his listeners were left asking themselves: “But he wasn’t really joking, was he?”

At least we don’t have to worry about the Great KoiTastrophe of 2017. Our president didn’t really botch that fish-feeding photo-op with Abe the way a lot of the media reported. It turns out that the Japanese leader also dumped his entire box of fish food into the pond. So we can all rest easy on that score, at least.

The Chinese are already revving up their own program to shape the president’s formless mind, if a statement released by the state-run news agency is anything to go by. Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zheng Zeguang let slip that Beijing is setting up “some special arrangements” for Trump and the first family “to learn more about Chinese history, culture and people.” Let me take a wild guess: this crash course will parcel out its payload in McNugget-sized bites, heavy on pictures and simple sentences.

Let’s consider an earlier president — George H.W. Bush, say. Before he went to work in the Oval Office he had served as a CIA director and an ambassador to Beijing. Imagine the Chinese openly announcing that they were going to spoon-feed him a bit of remedial instruction on their country. Unthinkable. But he, of course, wasn’t a “real American.”

Real Americans don’t trust those sly elites, presumably because elites so often have heads filled with facts. And as Trump told one interviewer during the presidential campaign, he didn’t have to know stuff about foreign affairs then because it really wasn’t worth knowing until, well, he needed it. Or something.

Now we see how that translates into practice. Just before Trump started on his trip, a Japanese paper broke an illuminating story: Trump astonished Abe at one point by asking why he didn’t shoot down the ballistic missiles that North Korea fired over their country in August and September.

You can picture his own foreign policy advisers doling out a patient explanation: “Well, you see, Mr. President, the Japanese knew that shooting down the missiles might trigger a war with the North – and they’d already calculated that the missiles were just passing over. They didn’t want war, Mr. President.”

Trump apparently has a hard time understanding this. Bush wouldn’t have. He fought in a war himself as a young man, and by the time he entered the Oval Office he had a head filled with facts about statecraft and diplomacy and foreign policy. So think for a minute: Which kind of leader would you rather have on the job when it’s time to make the most important decision a president can make?