Washington has a new motto: “In Trump’s faithlessness we trust.”
As the US and most of Asia prepares for the next unpredictable episode of Donald Trump’s off again, on again summit with Kim Jong-un, The Guardian quotes the wise words of former Japanese diplomat Hitoshi Tanaka who has “urged the US to understand the importance of trust in Asian cultures as it pushes for a deal to remove Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons.”
Here is today’s 3D definition from a multicultural perspective:
In the US, the belief that the other person signing a contract, though potentially an adversary, will respect the terms of the contract or face the prospect of a lawsuit
In Asia, the sense that the person with whom one is engaging is committed to a long-term relationship implying a form of co-management
It is no coincidence that the word trust in English, according to Merriam-Webster, also signifies:
a) a property interest held by one person for the benefit of another
b) a combination of firms or corporations formed by a legal agreement… that reduces or threatens to reduce competition
In US culture, trust thus contains an implicit reference to property and control, or what may be called the “interest” of a party seen from a largely individualist and essentially economic perspective. The Confucian notion of xin — commonly translated as trust but also as “faithfulness” — derives from the word for the physical heart and by extension also the mind. In English, trust focuses on what is outside the person: what they own or control. In Chinese, it focuses on what is inside the person, what they feel and think. One is about possession, the other about relationship.
Chinaculture.org offers a definition that highlights the distinction between East and West: “Confucius held ‘faithfulness’ to be an indispensable virtue for a human being. Only a man of faithfulness would be appointed to some task; otherwise survival would be hardly possible. Confucius called the man without faith a mean person and kept an aloof distance with them.”
The question facing the two Koreas and the rest of the world may thus boil down to this: Is Donald Trump “a man without faith”? From an Asian point of view, the evidence points strongly toward an affirmative answer to the question. But even from a Western point of view, Trump’s behavior — peremptorily walking away from international agreements — marks him as a man who cannot be trusted and the US as a nation lacking xin. Trump and most of the US establishment live with the deeply rooted conviction that force will always triumph over weakness, and that negotiation as all about having the upper hand. Americans are accustomed to reason in terms of possession, physical security and control, rather than faithfulness and relationship-building.
We are still in the opening rounds of what promoter Don King might be tempted to call “the diplomatic fight of the century.” Trump would like to win with a knockout, but as a former performer himself in the hyperreal world of professional wrestling, he may well be more focused on delivering a pre-scripted drama to entertain the crowd. In so doing, he seems to be missing the real story: The rise of China and the inexorable and ongoing shift, documented by McKinsey, of the world’s economic center of gravity, which has already crossed Russia and is heading toward China. “If McKinsey’s projections about demographics and growth in the next few years are correct, that shift will only continue and accelerate, as emerging and developing markets continue to grow rapidly while developed markets grow at a much slower pace.”
Trump seems to be only dimly aware of the significance of two events directly provoked by his erratic decision-making. The first was the Kim Jong-un’s surprise visit to Chinese President Xi Jinping in Dalian, which led to the following statement reported by The Guardian: “As long as relevant parties abolish their hostile policies and remove security threats against the DPRK [North Korea], there is no need for the DPRK to be a nuclear state and denuclearisation can be realised.”
This succinctly states the essential terms of the issue, but it also contains a touch of diplomatic irony that has escaped the attention of all commentators. North Korea and China have reduced the status of the US to that of a “relevant party” (i.e. an outsider), which is a fair enough description in light of the second significant event: the surprise meeting on the northern side of the border, only a few weeks later, between Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
The US may have no choice but to lose the iron grip it has held on South Korea, militarily and economically, since the end of the Korean War. Michael Hayden, the former director of the CIA, believes Trump hasn’t “done the homework needed.” Part of that homework should be seeking to understand the meaning of trust, faithfulness and xin in Asian culture.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.