The value of an obnoxious president
Another week, another round of news stories about President Trump shredding America's alliances. This time, the reason is trade. After generally appalling the members of the G7 with his protectionist policies, the president decided to insult our Canadian neighbors by implying that his recently-imposed steel tariffs had something to do with the War of 1812.
It was an unfortunate analogy. The War of 1812 started with complaints about British restrictions on American trade with France, and what was supposed to be a “cake walk” American invasion of Canada turned into a rout, ending with the American capital in ruins. If anyone should have been waving that sooty shirt, it was Justin Trudeau.
But the theatrics — insults traded with angry allies — are probably the worst way to assess whether what's happening is good, bad, or largely irrelevant. Because there's basically no way America could make the kind of major policy shift that Trump campaigned on without being widely perceived as an obnoxious jerk.
Trump ran for office on a platform of putting America first, arguing that the United States was getting taken advantage of by foreign countries in both trade and national security policy. Allies like Germany and adversaries like China alike ran persistent and large trade surpluses that devastated American manufacturing. Meanwhile, both our European and East Asian allies didn't even pay their fair share of the cost of collective security. To put America first, we would demand a reduction in those trade surpluses, threatening trade war if necessary to achieve that reduction, and an increased military commitment from our allies, threatening to reduce our commitment to the alliance if it was not forthcoming.
That view can be criticized from a wide variety of perspectives, but first of all, we need to understand how we got here. A large fraction of America's trade deficit is due to the dollar's status as a global reserve currency, which benefits American businesses and consumers by keeping interest rates artificially low. And America has long demanded our European allies structure their armed forces around interoperability and specialization, making them more useful for NATO operations but less able to operate independently, and hence more dependent on American leadership. To a considerable extent, the existing arrangement, with all its imbalances, is precisely what America has seemed to want for decades: a Europe that is basically healthy but dependent on American leadership in both economic and geopolitical matters.
If that arrangement no longer serves American interests, then a more enlightened approach to changing course would recognize the trade-offs involved for all parties and work to manage the transition to minimize conflict and instability. But even if it were Mitt Romney or Barack Obama putting America first, the global reaction would be extremely hostile, because they would require a major reordering of allied relations. And while not every such change would be zero-sum, the known losers would be bound to be far more furious than the potential winners.
Consider our trade deficit with the European Union, which has run about $150 billion per year for the past several years. This could be cut relatively simply by engineering a drop in the value of the dollar against the euro. But whose exports would be hurt by such a devaluation? Those that are most easily substituted by other providers — which is less likely to be specialized machinery from Germany than wine and ham from Italy and Spain, the very countries who desperately need a continued rise in exports to dig their way out of debt. A rise in the euro would exacerbate the tensions that are already threatening to tear the EU apart.
Or consider how a serious effort at burden-sharing would play out. The southern European countries still struggling with austerity are unlikely to want to devote further resources to military spending that could be spent on social welfare needs, while Germany, which has an exceptionally large shortfall in both absolute and percentage terms, would understandably expect a far greater share in collective decision making if it were to invest significantly in rearmament. And one wonders how a Europe already chafing at German economic domination would react to such a development, or how the Poles would react if Washington responded to their request for permanent American bases with a suggestion that they turn to Berlin instead.
An American administration cognizant of the value of American leadership and of good relations with our key allies would try to assuage these kinds of concerns and find compromises that turned the ship slowly but surely in our desired direction. But that very assurance might well encourage our allies to protest as loudly as possible that their concerns were not, in fact, being met, and to try to wrangle as many concessions as possible in exchange for promises of progress, keeping the ship mostly on its previous course. Which, in fact, has been the dynamic around these issues for many years.
By contrast, an administration that wanted to signal it meant business might very well decide the best way to do so is by showing clear insensitivity to allied concerns. More to the point, an administration that wanted the political capital to weather allied complaints would do well to campaign on such insensitivity. Which is precisely what the Trump administration did. As with immigration, there may be an unpleasant but real method to this administration's maddeningness.
That doesn't mean Trump actually has a plan to rebalance international trade, restore American manufacturing, or restructure NATO. His gut instinct that something is out of whack combined with a bullying and insulting personal style are quite sufficient to explain allied outrage. And his belligerent ignorance and chaotic management style are quite sufficient to squander any possible opportunities that his very obnoxiousness might have opened up, leaving America with little gain to offset the deterioration in allied relations.
But it does mean that observers shouldn't fall into the error of assuming that our interests and those of our allies are perfectly aligned, or that the most pleasant summits are always the most productive. Trump got elected substantially because he promised to stand up for American interests, and not to care what anybody else thought about it. For those inclined to agree with that priority, foreign sputtering might just look like a sign that he's doing something right.