The problem with Trump
August 21, 2019
We all love to hate him. For who he is, for what he stands for, for what he does and especially for all that he fails to achieve. And yet, there is that nagging impression that he sometimes has a point, and an important one at that.
Take China. It is said to execute more people than the rest of the world taken together. Freedom of opinion and speech does not exist in this dictatorship. It viciously persecutes its minorities. Trump does not seem to give a damn about that. He cares about trade. And, it’s true, China has brazenly flouted OMC rules since it joined. Trump cares a lot about that. Most other countries also care about China’s disrespect for trading rules, but they mostly stay mum about it, and about human right violations as well. The reason is that China is the world’s fastest growing market and no self-righteous political leader would take the risk of being shut off the bonanza. So, at least, Trump is taking on the Chinese autocrats, you have to give him credit for that. The US is leading the fight against the biggest trade offender on earth.
Of course, Trump attacks China’s trade practices mainly because he cannot stand the trade deficit between the two countries, which is meaningless (and has shrunk a lot). If you’re not an oil producer, you’ll run deficits with some oil producing countries, to everyone’s benefit, and make it up with surpluses with other countries. China, which has few natural resources, runs deficits with many countries that provide these resources, and surpluses with others, including the US. This is the very reason why international trade is so useful. Trump fails to understand this elementary fact, because the overall external balance of the US is in deficit, which is not China’s fault. The US deficit exists because the US spends more than it earns, which is its right provided it pays for the difference. Which it does, by exporting dollars (cost to the US: zero) to the rest of the world, including China, is keen to accumulate. There is nothing wrong with that either: Saudi Arabia exports oil, which it has in vast quantities, the US exports dollars, which can produce at will, every country has, or should have, something to sell to others. The Saudis are lucky to have oil, the US has been extraordinarily skilled at building the financial infrastructure that the world needs.
Anyway, back to Trump. He bitches about Germany not paying its share of defense while enjoying the protection of the US. That seems a fair complaint. His predecessors largely chose to ignore the issue, maybe because no one really wants to see a resurgent military power in a country with a poor historical record of the use of might. Inconsistently, perhaps, he regularly expresses his disdain for European integration and enthusiastically encourages a hard Brexit. He sees the European Union as an amorphous arrangement, which is precisely what the most ardent pro-Europe activists also lament, an echo of Kissinger’s famously humiliating remark that he did not know which phone number to call to talk to Europe. He is siding unreservedly with Israel’s hawks in belittling the Palestinians’ aspiration of a state, which has become a mythical goal of the Arab public opinion. The fact that seventy years after Israel’s creation, may Palestinians still live as refugees in various Arab countries, on the other hand, indicate that solidarity is highly limited while the sharp divisions among Palestinians betray the limits of the “sacred” goal. His brotherly friendship with the North Korean despot is meant to try something different than the approach that has failed for more than half a century, including precluding the acquisition of nuclear weapons. While the Europeans bemoan Trump’s denunciation of the agreement with Iran, they freely admit the agreement’s deep shortcomings.
I can go on and on. The fact is that Trump is not fundamentally wrong. He is the ultimate enemy of political correctness, an apparent paradox for the President of the world’s superpower that has shaped the world order and become the champion of the politically correct. Political correctness, however, is a way if sweeping under the rug difficult questions, by blunting valid criticism under often arbitrary moral pronouncements. In many ways, it is fortunate that the White House is shaking decades of faulty arrangements.
The problem with Trump is that faulty arrangements are better than misleading ones or than no arrangements at all. Most of the time. Trump has nothing better to propose. His approach, which combines insulting off-the-cuff statements and aggressive actions, betrays his lack of a deeper understanding of the issues at stake, their historical origins and complexity. If things were as simple as he seems to believe, they would have been dealt with long ago. He has systematically fired his early advisers, who knew better, to assemble a coterie of yes-sayers, who do not know better or who stand ready to jettison what they know to keep their jobs.
There is nothing that can be done from the outside to improve the inner workings of the Trump presidency. The traditional allies of the US may hope that it will end soon, but this hope may turn out to be an illusion. Two approaches are conceivable. A first one would be to recognize that Trump is often right and to come up with well worked-up proposals, in effect taking the risk to jettison political correctness and imperfect arrangements, without any guarantee that the outcome will be better than the current situation. A second approach would be to ignore Trump and try and salvage as much as possible of the status quo. In fact, both approaches have been tried. An example of the first approach is to defend economic multilateralism and encourage China to abandon its most egregious trade violations. An example of the second approach is the Europeans’ attempts to keep the Iranian agreement alive. So far at least, none of these efforts have borne any fruit. One reason is that the US remains the world superpower so that no arrangement can work without its support, another reason is that Trump does not abide by his commitments so that any agreement stands to be undone for unpredictable reasons.
What is left is to bid for time. At some point, either in 2021 or in 2025, someone else will move into the White House. In the meantime, the world will have changed, quite possibly for the worse, it already has. There is no way we will be able to simply go back to the pre-Trump world. The first of priority is to avoid disasters. The second priority is to work with all those in the US who share our views, and there are a great many of them, to prepare the aftermath, pretty much as the Allies did during World War II. It means negotiations among coalitions of the willing to forge well-crafted agreements without the US but drawing on technical knowledge and political involvement by US citizens, think tanks, possibly even political groupings.
A good example is climate change. The best solution is a well-designed carbon tax (not the faulty versions occasionally promoted), as a group of 27 Nobel prize winners, all from the US, have reminded us. It would be highly desirable that as many countries as possible agree on establishing such a tax, and apply border duties on import from non-complying countries. This would open the way for the US to join in once Trump is gone, while encouraging individual US states to make preparations to rip rapid benefits once it happens.