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“Sobering and a bit depressing.” That was German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s verdict of Donald J. Trump’s latest temper tantrum, which blew apart this weekend’s G7 summit. The president had just disavowed the group’s arduously negotiated communique after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had the temerity to declare that his country would “not be pushed around” by the United States. Trump decided to prove him wrong.
Whether one considers Trump a nationalist patriot or a petulant ignoramus, his fit of pique proved one thing. He is destined to be one of America’s most consequential foreign policy presidents. Fewer than seventeen months into his administration, Trump has already shaken the foundations of international order. He has abdicated U.S. global leadership, which he believes has bled the United States dry, and he has sidelined multilateral institutions (from NATO to the WTO), which he perceives constrain U.S. freedom of action. The G7 summit suggests he is just getting started. He seems prepared to abandon the transatlantic relationship, and even the concept of “the West,” as pillars of U.S. global engagement.
Before Trump—“B.T.,” if you will—U.S. administrations hewed to certain orthodoxies. The United States aspired to global leadership. It stood for a free and open world—one based upon open societies, the rule of law, free (or at least freer) trade, collective defense, and international institutions within which to cooperate and manage any points of friction. To be sure, Western nations had occasional trade spats and regular disagreements over alliance burden sharing. But such discord was kept within bounds, as ideological solidarity and common interests provided diplomatic guardrails.
Under Trump, the United States is off the rails. Rather than debating the merits of his case maturely, the president vents at America’s closest allies. “We’re like the piggy bank that everybody’s robbing,” he cried over the weekend, while blasting Trudeau as “very dishonest and weak.”
It is tempting to dismiss this as presidential pettiness. But Trump’s senior advisors piled on, too. “There’s a special place in hell reserved for any foreign leader that engages in bad-faith diplomacy with President Donald J. Trump and then tries to stab him in the back on the way out the door,” top White House trade advisor Peter Navarro griped on Fox News. Larry Kudlow, the tele-pundit turned trade advisor, accused Trudeau of “betrayal,” as well as making the president look “weak” before his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. National Security Advisor John Bolton joined the fray, tweeting, “Just another #G7 where other countries expect America will always be their bank. The President made it clear today. No more. ”
As Paul Krugman notes, Trump and Co. wildly exaggerate the trade barriers confronting U.S. exports in G7 countries, especially in Europe and Canada. For example, U.S.-Canada dairy trade, the subject of Trump’s ire, is around $700 million, or one-tenth of a percent of the total bilateral trade in goods. They also cling to a zero-sum view of trade that regards any imbalance as a threat to U.S. prosperity, even national security. Indeed, the administration has absurdly justified steel tariffs against U.S. allies on national security grounds—a gambit sure to be overturned by future WTO rulings.
Credible or not, Trump’s argument resonates deeply with his populist base, echoing a longstanding and powerful “sucker narrative.” This holds that foreigners have long been taking the United States for a ride, freeloading on U.S. military contributions while gouging the U.S. blind in one-sided trade arrangements.
Lacking in this bill of grievances is any acknowledgment of the benefits the United States has garnered as the undisputed leader of the West. American primacy has permitted Washington to herd transatlantic allies into a single NATO “corral” and to determine alliance policies, as well as to create a relatively open global economy that has brought unprecedented prosperity to the United States. To be sure, there are grave problems with the global trading system. The principal culprit here is not in the West, but in a China that refuses to play by the rules. The current G7 spat merely takes the focus and the pressure off Beijing.
The sucker narrative dates back to World War I, when American nationalists complained that “about all we got out of Europe was our soldiers” (as if the United States had not entered the war for its own national interests). During the 1920s and 1930s, an isolationist, sovereignty-minded America declined to take the reins of global economic leadership and ignored the gathering fascist storm, adopting a purely transactional approach to diplomacy and failing to invest in the international system. It watched from the sidelines as the world descended into the Great Depression and into a second world war.
A historically-minded president might bear these lessons in mind when considering what America’s role in the world should be—and who his real friends are. Not Trump, who is oblivious to the role of institutions in legitimating U.S. power and who mused, just before the Charlevoix summit, that the G7 should bring Vladimir Putin’s Russia back into a reconstituted G8. (The new Italian prime minister agreed, and was rewarded with the promise of a White House visit).
Trump’s jaw-dropping suggestion to bring Putin back into the fold reveals how little value he places on the notion of the “West” as a collection of like-minded democracies, united in their defense of human liberty and the rule of law rather than the law of the jungle. For the internationally minded, it makes one yearn for the years B.T.