Updated on August 16 at 9:43 a.m.
Over the past few nightmarish hurricane seasons, climate scientists have sought to draw a fine distinction: No particular hurricane is the result of climate change, they say, but climate change is making storms worse and more frequent.
Global warming, it turns out, can serve as a useful metaphor for global affairs. The past week has offered a range of examples of authoritarian nationalism on the rise. In each case, from Hong Kong to Kashmir to Israel, it is impossible to lay the blame directly on President Donald Trump, as the leaders involved have their own long-standing motives. But the American president’s impassive responses to, and sometimes open encouragement of, such actions have made the world a safer place for authoritarianism.
Heading west from Washington, the tour of the damage starts in Hong Kong, where pro-democracy protesters have been in the streets for days. The Chinese government is sending signs that it may crack down on the demonstrations, including military exercises in Shenzhen, just across from Hong Kong on the mainland.
Yet in a dispute between protesters seeking civil liberties and a democratic voice and the autocratic Chinese government, Trump has been extremely reluctant to warn President Xi Jinping against a brutal response or to defend the protests, despite pressure from aides and conservatives. On Thursday, the president finally weighed in on Twitter, but his comments were perplexing. They were heavily caveated, and also suggested a surprisingly naive view of the tensions between Hong Kong and the Chinese government:
I know President Xi of China very well. He is a great leader who very much has the respect of his people. He is also a good man in a “tough business.” I have ZERO doubt that if President Xi wants to quickly and humanely solve the Hong Kong problem, he can do it. Personal meeting? … If President Xi would meet directly and personally with the protesters, there would be a happy and enlightened ending to the Hong Kong problem. I have no doubt!
If Trump is serious, he could—and can—offer a more forceful statement. Of course, Trump has interests to balance. He’s in the midst of trying to renegotiate trade relations between the United States and China, but he has shown no reluctance to antagonize Beijing with tariffs. Trump has, however, repeatedly shown that he has little regard for a free press, detests dissent, and fears protests, making his silence unsurprising. Beijing hardly needs encouragement to repress demonstrators—it’s been doing that, in one way or another, since the Communist Party took over, but Xi can also guess there won’t be much pushback from an American president who, in 1990, said that the violent 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen, though “vicious,” “shows you the power of strength. Our country is right now perceived as weak.”