There may be short-term wins for America but there will be long-term damage to the world
CANADA is a fairly laid-back place. On the morning of May 25th, a Friday, Justin Trudeau, the prime minister, looked relaxed, dressed in jeans, having walked to his office opposite the parliament building in Ottawa. Mr Trudeau talked to The Economist about the trade negotiations with the United States, explaining that his job was to stand up for Canadian interests, that President Donald Trump understood this, and that the two had “a very good working relationship”.
But Canada is also a place that depends on the United States for two-thirds of its trade. There was nothing relaxed about Mr Trudeau’s response when, a few days later, Mr Trump slapped tariffs on steel and aluminium from Canada, Europe and Mexico, ostensibly for reasons of national security. Mr Trudeau said the idea that Canada was somehow a national-security threat to the United States was “quite frankly insulting and unacceptable”. France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, called the tariffs “illegal” and warned: “Economic nationalism leads to war. That is exactly what happened in the 1930s.” When Canada hosts the G7 summit in Charlevoix, Quebec on June 8th-9th, it risks looking like the G6+1.
Mr Trump came to power arguing that the world was a mess and American foreign policy an abject failure. His “America First” view was that it was no longer America’s job to clean up that mess, but to pursue its own interests. It was time for America’s enemies to fear it, for its allies to pay their fair share and for the country to be more selfish in pursuing what it wanted.
The American foreign-policy establishment he turned his back on returned the compliment, and was dismayed by his election victory. Some among its number nevertheless harboured hopes that having campaigned in bile, the president would govern in beige, constrained by the realities of office, “grown-ups” in his team and the persuasion of his allies.
It didn’t happen. Just over 500 days into his presidency, Mr Trump is up to his ears in foreign-policy controversy and showing no signs of being constrained. He has appointed his second secretary of state, the hawkish Mike Pompeo, and his third national security adviser, the ultra-hawkish John Bolton. In the past three months, in addition to imposing tariffs on his allies, he has abrogated the nuclear deal with Iran, set the stage for a trade war with China and offered Kim Jong Un of North Korea a summit, which is due to take place in Singapore on June 12th.
Trade experts, policy veterans and diplomats from almost all America’s allies have looked on aghast. Mr Trump’s voters are thrilled. In foreign policy, perhaps more than anywhere else, he is doing exactly what he said he would do: pulling out of the Paris climate agreement and the Iran deal, moving America’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, getting tough with China. Many in business are more or less on board, too; happy with growth at home, they give the president the benefit of the doubt overseas—and when it comes to China-bashing, plenty of them are all for it. Some allied governments, notably those of Israel and Saudi Arabia, are delighted.
There are three perspectives from which to look at this. The most prevalent in the foreign-policy establishment and the chancelleries of Europe is despair. The rules-based order ushered in after the second world war, which provided both the greatest-ever increase in human wealth and global trade and a whole human lifetime without worldwide armed conflict, is being dismantled. No good will come of it.
The second perspective could be called “Yes, but”. Yes-but-ism doesn’t exactly reject despair, but tempers it with various caveats: that Mr Trump’s outrages may not be as profound, unprecedented and permanent as they might seem; and that the old rules-based order was already failing in a number of respects.
The third perspective is openness to surprising success. This holds that Mr Trump’s one-off mixture of ambitions and style means he might be able to achieve things that people working in old ways within the old system simply could not.
These are perspectives, not camps. Those who despair, or think “Yes, but”, may also be open to surprise—indeed most of them are, to some extent. That said, few of them suspect the successes, if any, to be other than short-lived.
To look at Mr Trump from any of these perspectives requires first assessing who he is and how he operates. Mr Trump is incurious and profoundly narcissistic, which means he is also thin-skinned. He is often impetuous, with no taste for long-term strategy or the consideration of consequences. He lies as only someone can do who does not care about the truth.
The lack of humility
Mr Trump appears to see the world as he saw the New York property market, a place of screw or be screwed. A deal where the other guy walks away happy is one where you could have got more. He sees international relations as he saw reality television: unpredictability and absurdity raise the ratings, turnover in the characters keeps things fresh and you should never let anyone forget who is the star of the show.
“He’s entirely unpredictable day to day, to his own staff,” complains Nicholas Burns, a former American ambassador to NATO who is now at Harvard’s Kennedy School. “That’s a big problem.” This is largely true and renders joined-up policymaking and sustained effort more or less impossible. But the unpredictability is not total. The nature of Mr Trump’s goals hardly changes: you can expect him to try to press ahead with things mentioned on the campaign trail, to undo anything achieved by Barack Obama, and not to think hard, if at all, about consequences. You can expect angry and fatuous tweeting and weird personal touches, as in the remarkable, cloying letter to Mr Kim of May 24th. You can expect everything to be transactional. At every point Mr Trump wants to get something for himself—something which will look good.
The four major policy moves of the past three months—scrapping the Iran deal, offering a summit to Mr Kim, setting the scene for a trade war with China and slapping steel tariffs on his allies—all reflect who Mr Trump is and how he works. No other recent president would have undertaken one of these, let alone all four at the same time. To his undoubted pleasure, they have scandalised much of the foreign-policy establishment. So what is it like to look at them from the perspective of being open to the surprise of success?
First comes the on-off-on-again Singapore summit with Mr Kim (see article). Mr Trump has both been more threatening to the North Korean regime than any previous president and, in offering a summit that will show the two men as equals, more accommodating. The summit, which would not have come about without the efforts of the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in (himself a victim of Mr Trump’s bullying in other matters), will not achieve a rapid or total denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. But it may offer a road to rapprochement where there was none before, and a lessening of tensions on the peninsula which, though exacerbated by Mr Trump, have been a serious long-standing security concern. The summit could look, at least, like a success.
Turning to the Middle East, Mr Trump’s ditching of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the Iran deal is formally known, was part of a broader push to increase pressure on Iran; uncritical support for Saudi Arabia and Israel is another part. The ditching of the deal was followed by a tough speech by Mr Pompeo presenting a laundry list of demands to Iran. The split with the Europeans makes co-ordinating pressure on Iran harder and creates a “major disconnect between the objective and the means,” says Martin Indyk, a Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institution, a think-tank.
But the Iranian economy is chronically weak, and European companies may not choose to deal with it if they face American reprisals. Pressure on Iran could build. “For all those who say there’s no chance this can work, there’s a part of me that says: well, I wonder,” says Dennis Ross of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. A new alignment of interests between Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states helps. “If it’s properly handled there is a way to push back against the Iranians in the region,” says Mr Indyk.
Blunting the Shia crescent would be widely seen as a triumph. An even bigger triumph would be regime change in Iran—a far bolder, some would say foolhardy, policy aim, and one that would be very hard indeed to sell to America’s non-Middle Eastern allies.
Mr Trump’s suggestions that his deal-making skills might be applied to Israel and Palestine, meanwhile, remain far-fetched. The peace plan drawn up by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is said by one of those consulted on it to be “a really serious effort”; that this is seen as something one could not take for granted about a White House plan says a lot in itself. But any chance that it would be well received by the Palestinians was scuppered when Mr Kushner’s wife, Ivanka Trump, opened the Jerusalem embassy. The prospect of a deal is “a fantasy”, according to Mr Indyk.
It is hard to make progress on Israel and Palestine if you see everything in terms of winners and losers. The same is even truer on trade, where Mr Trump is completely driven by bilateral trade balances. But his willingness to do what others have not may get him a claimable victory here; it is possible that China might find ways to shrink its trade surplus. An economy that big can soak up a lot of Boeings, soya and liquefied natural gas.
There is almost no way to put a positive spin on the steel tariffs against America’s allies (see article). But a successful-looking North Korea summit, a cowed Iran and Chinese concessions on trade would look like winning to Mr Trump and his supporters, and to some other observers, too. His approach would have brought about what others dared not attempt.
Like a kid that’s found his dad’s gun
Now look again, from the perspective of despair. There is no guarantee of anything which even resembles a success. But even if Mr Trump could claim a hat-trick, the potential downsides could more than offset any gains. With North Korea, for example, there is the disturbing possibility that Mr Kim might offer to give up his ICBMs, which look as if they can carry weapons to any part of America, but not, yet, all his bombs or all his shorter-range missiles. Thus South Korea and Japan would remain under threat—and feel betrayed by an ally interested in protecting only itself. That could open the way to a regional arms race.
North Koreans have told foreign contacts that the fate of the JCPOA means their country will not trust any deal offered it. This is one of the big downsides of pulling out of the Iran deal. It did not just put at risk a well-crafted plan that genuinely constrained Iran’s nuclear capacity and put in place unprecedented limits and safeguards—strictures from which Iran could now walk away at any time. It damaged America’s trustworthiness: the hegemon broke its word. That is why the Pentagon and many diplomats argued against it. Meanwhile some Iranian analysts warn that, as America piles on new sanctions, Iran is more likely to restart uranium enrichment than embrace democracy.
On trade, a Chinese move on the bilateral deficit which satisfied Mr Trump would do nothing to solve the genuine problems in the world trade system, nor, Mr Trump might be sad to learn, reduce America’s overall trade deficit much. And the damage being done to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) by claiming that things such as car imports are a national-security matter will make things worse.
In all three cases there is another worry: that Mr Trump comes cheap, and can be played. The Kims have wanted the validation of a peer-to-peer summit for decades; this Mr Kim has so far paid very little to get one. Moving the embassy to Jerusalem was a very big deal for Israel, which might have been willing to do a lot to make it happen—but was not asked to. And a move on the trade balance Mr Trump makes so much of might spare China from having to take steps that would strike at its theft of intellectual property, its subsidies and its restrictions on foreign investment.
The pirates don’t eat the tourists
Thus it is possible to be open to short-term success and still gravely regret Mr Trump’s rejection of the world order that a bipartisan consensus in American foreign-policy circles has long embraced. RAND, a think-tank firmly rooted in this consensus, recently completed a two-year project on the benefits to America of the international rules-based system. It concluded that the system has boosted the effectiveness of American diplomacy and military strength, and helped to advance American interests: “A strong international order is strongly beneficial for the United States.”
Hence the despair at that order’s weakening. “[Mr] Trump has fundamentally changed American policy for the worse,” says Mr Burns. “He’s the weakest president in my lifetime, and the most dangerous. I’m not alone. These are mainstream views.” So they are. Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, and a Republican, thinks people already view America differently. “The United States has knocked itself off the pedestal,” he says. The effects are likely to be “lasting and corrosive”. “We have yet to come to terms with the full extent of the damage he’s doing to America’s role in the world,” says Michael Fullilove, who heads the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney. “The leader of the free world doesn’t believe in the free world.”
It is against this background that one has to set the “Yes, but” perspectives: yes, but it is not all that new; yes, but it will not last; yes, but the world has changed.
Some of what Mr Trump is overturning is quite recent, and not all that popular; to walk away from it is simply to cross over to a path not taken but still clearly visible. The JCPOA had many enemies. The Paris climate agreement was carefully crafted so as not to need Senate ratification—which it had no hope of getting. Hillary Clinton told American voters that she would reject the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal negotiated under Mr Obama, as Mr Trump has done—though for her it was a reluctant and not entirely convincing concession, while for him it was a proud boast.
Many of Mr Trump’s bugbears were issues before. Anger at China’s theft of intellectual property and restrictions on investment has been building for decades. Mr Obama pressed NATO allies to spend more on defence, too. He also kept troops in Iraq and Afghanistan that many of his supporters wanted to see brought home, just as Mr Trump is doing. “Historians will look back and see more in common between Obama and Trump,” says Allan Gyngell, a doyen of Australian foreign policymaking at the Australian National University in Canberra.
There is also a case that Mr Trump is in fact part of a long tradition: “America First” was a slogan of four successive presidents from Woodrow Wilson onwards. Walter Russell Mead of Bard College identifies four guiding philosophies for American foreign policy: Jeffersonian, Hamiltonian, Jacksonian and Wilsonian. The cold war produced a hybrid between the Hamiltonian approach—international engagement favouring American interests, particularly those of business—and the internationalist and idealist Wilsonians. The unilateralist-isolationist heirs to Andrew Jackson went along with this, but when the Soviet threat was removed they soon saw all those foreign encumbrances as a pain. Mr Trump, who has a portrait of Old Hickory in the Oval Office, takes the same view. A 19th-century precedent does not make this a good approach to the 21st. But it does make Mr Trump look less aberrant.
They didn’t stop to think if they should
Another “Yes, but” point is to stress the resilience of the old apparatus. The State Department, which seemed to be going to pot under Rex Tillerson, is likely to see morale pick up under Mr Pompeo; the Pentagon provides continuity. Congress has tried to constrain Mr Trump on some things, as when he has tried to ease sanctions on Russia. The Europeans will grouse, but have no real alternative other than to stick with the NATO alliance. America’s Pacific partners are at pains to keep what Roland Paris of the University of Ottawa calls a “docking bay” for the United States in TPP, should it one day wish to return.
What is more, the degree of Chinese competition to American pre-eminence can be overestimated, according to Joseph Nye, an expert on American power at Harvard’s Kennedy School. America remains far ahead militarily. Convertibility for the yuan is for the future. Jake Sullivan, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, recently wrote in Foreign Affairs that “rumours of the international order’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.”
And there is little evidence that the American public has taken a decisive Jacksonian turn. Polling by the Pew Research Centre shows them evenly divided between those who want their country to be active in world affairs and those who say it should concentrate on problems at home. The share of those favouring foreign activism has actually been rising, from 35% in 2014 to 47% last year. In 2016, 3m more voters chose Mrs Clinton, a much more internationalist, foreign-policy consensualist, than Mr Trump. This, though, is a one-term argument. If, seeing what he has wrought, America chooses Mr Trump again in 2020, the evidence for a decisive turn will be much stronger.
That leaves the biggest “Yes, but” of all: that the international system, somewhat ossified, faces a new world for which it was not designed. Both the astonishing rise of China’s economic power and, more recently, its increased authoritarianism at home and assertiveness abroad under Xi Jinping, mark deep shifts in geopolitics. With India coming along behind, Europe looking troubled, and risks from climate chaos too, the changes seem set to continue.
For many experts, this is a reason to strengthen today’s structure. But the idea that the old world order is not a good fit for the current and coming world can also be taken as meaning that a little creative destruction might helpfully broaden minds and reshape institutions.
Unfortunately, there is no reason to think that Mr Trump’s destructive efforts will lend themselves to any creative aftermath. They have the consistent effect of weakening core alliances and alienating neighbours. “It’s no longer the case that the United States will simply just protect us,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, acknowledged last month. As yet, none of America’s Western allies has found any way of getting concessions from Mr Trump.
If most of America’s allies (which Mr Trump often refers to as competitors) are unhappy, its real strategic competitors, Russia and China, are making hay. The weaker the West, the less threatened Russia feels, and the more it sees a chance of encouraging European countries to break with the sanctions that hurt its economy; Italy, under its new government, is a tempting target. The fact that Mr Trump is trying to thwart efforts to discover the degree to which Russia attempted to undermine his opponent in the 2016 election does not just add to the distrust with which foreign-policy people see him. It may also encourage Russia in similar efforts elsewhere—or, indeed, renewed efforts in America.
Hold on to your butts
China is startled by how rapidly American leadership has dwindled. Though Communist Party officials are somewhat wary of taking on great-power responsibilities, they see tempting opportunities to portray China as the defender of world order in matters such as climate change and trade. And China knows how to get its way with Mr Trump, at least on some things, as the case of ZTE, a telecoms-equipment company based in Shenzhen, recently showed. America punished ZTE for breaking laws on Iranian sanctions with a ban on semiconductor purchases in the United States—in effect a corporate death-sentence. China lobbied hard for a reprieve. Chinese requests for such special favours under Mr Obama were routinely dismissed by officials who explained that this was not how things worked in America, governed by the rule of law. But Mr Trump publicly ordered his government to lift the ban on May 13th.
The degree to which Mr Trump’s policy decisions can be influenced by favourable treatment of the business interests from which he continues to benefit is not clear. If they can, it is a fair bet that a number of countries, including China, will seek such leverage. On May 10th a state-owned Chinese company made a deal with an Indonesian company that is the Trump Organisation’s partner in a large development.
Might the individual, transactional elements of Mr Trump’s policy add up to something grander, that might even be called Trumpism? If so, according to John Negroponte, a former ambassador and director of national intelligence, it probably looks something like this. Build up America’s economy, freeing it from years of overzealous regulation (peace through strength). Maintain alliances (just about) and invest heavily in the country’s military power (peace through might). Use that strength to make gains in chosen areas around the world, including in the long challenge from China.
Mr Trump, some say, would not be the first American president to be widely derided by the foreign-policy establishment yet prove surprisingly successful in bringing peace and prosperity. Ronald Reagan spoke in direct ways no one expected—“evil empire”—and was ready to intensify the cold war. He supported a huge deficit-backed increase in military spending, not to mention some unsavoury friends in Latin America. He was willing to pick trade fights and throw America’s weight around. For all these reasons he was condescended to and disparaged by all sorts of experts in his first term. And that was before the ill-advised, illegal shenanigans of Iran-Contra came to light. Yet the cold war ended, America got richer, its military forces became more capable and the world-trade system was liberalised.
But Mr Reagan had values. He was an eternal optimist, a champion of America as an example to the world. He possessed a consistent world view and a moral compass—albeit one that occasionally erred. He knew stuff; he made notes; he believed there could be win-win deals. Although he, too, got through lots of national security advisers (six in all), for much of his time in office he had the consistent support of exceptional secretaries of state and defence, George Shultz and Caspar Weinberger. And he was lucky in his geopolitical adversary/partner, Mikhail Gorbachev—a man now taken by Mr Xi as history’s greatest example of a precedent not to follow.
The chances of Mr Trump being looked back on as a latter-day Reagan are nil. The chances that he might achieve some of his short-term aims are real. Unfortunately, to the extent that Mr Trump succeeds, he, his followers and those of like mind elsewhere will feel that their scorn of the rules-based international order is vindicated, while continuing to do nothing to find a durable replacement. They are right that it is in some ways outdated and inadequate. They are wrong that it is unnecessary—as a world of trade wars, nuclear proliferation, fractured alliances and regional conflict may soon show.