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. 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 …read more

Source:: The Week – World


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