(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump recently wrapped up a three-week whirlwind of summitry, meeting with the leaders of Japan, France and Germany. If his visitors found the experience bewildering, who can blame them?
In the past few months the president has repudiated much of what the U.S. once believed about international relations. He’s advocated trade war as an instrument of policy. And he’s brought a jarring new approach to dealing with other governments — friendly and unfriendly — by means of a torrent of insults and flattery, threats and inducements.
In the world according to Trump, the president knows what he’s doing, and it’s working just fine. Be the bully and keep them guessing. Apply this to allies as well as rivals — because in the end what’s the difference? Disdain institutions that the U.S. spent decades building — because what did they ever do for us? In the real world, this approach will prove enormously damaging to the country, as well as to America’s friends.
Chaotic in one way, Trump’s maneuvers do have a certain consistency. By inveighing against the supposed dangers of immigration, scuppering the TPP, threatening to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement and Nafta, and slamming NATO and the UN as bad deals, he’s doing what he told voters he would. In their White House meetings, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel got cold comfort on Iran and trade. In Mar-a-Lago, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe got nowhere in trying to woo Trump back into the TPP. The president’s supporters aren’t complaining.
And it’s true that Trump’s bully-and-confuse method has achieved some results. He’s won a few concessions on trade. He’s mustered stiffer sanctions against North Korea that have prompted “Little Rocket Man” to talk (all too vaguely) of peace and denuclearization. He’s pushed America’s NATO partners to raise their defense spending a notch. There might be more such wins, as other governments play for time and struggle to adapt — but be under no illusions about the risk this style of foreign policy is taking.
Trump’s art of the diplomatic deal typically pursues a narrow unilateral gain by linking it to threats of reprisal with far broader implications. He tells Mexico: Pay for the wall or no Nafta. He signals to South Korea: Give way on trade, or the U.S. might draw down its forces. This approach widens areas of disagreement and, as a result, destabilizes arrangements that have long worked to America’s advantage.
It’s deliberate: The president’s zero-sum thinking leads him to see alliances and institutions as essentially exploitative. But this view is deeply misguided. Interaction with other countries isn’t zero-sum. In economic and security matters alike, the cooperative pursuit of mutual interests under U.S. leadership gave the West decades of relative peace and prosperity after 1945. Today’s challenges are different, but the logic of cooperation hasn’t changed.
Alliances and institutions provide stability and predictability. Sustaining them requires shared interests and a reputation for keeping your word. The president opposes these things on principle. Instead, he believes in division — in driving wedges. He once boasted, “I know more about wedges than any human being that's ever lived.” (That sounds correct.)
Driving wedges and bullying allies can work for a while but in the end will backfire. Japan worries that Trump's focus on the U.S.-Japan trade deficit will lead him to discount its concerns on North Korea. (As one Japanese analyst put it, “[With] this president, if your ally is in trouble, it might suggest that this is a good time for him to exploit this ally.”) So Japan is moving forward in security talks with China and on trade with the European Union. Following Trump’s threats to Nafta, Mexico is deepening its partnership with the EU. These responses weaken the U.S.
In the worst case, Trump’s plans to impose tariffs on the EU and China could spark a ruinous trade war. A precipitate pullout from the Iran nuclear deal could trigger a crisis. And Trump’s moves on North Korea could end in new extremes of nuclear brinkmanship. In each case, there’s no Plan B without the backing of the allies and institutions Trump is undermining; in each case, it would have been better to act multilaterally in the first place.
On China’s treatment of intellectual property, it would be better to join forces with the EU and Japan, and act through the WTO. Israel’s intelligence trove on Iran’s past nuclear program doesn’t change the fact that the best way to block an Iranian bomb is to mend the current nuclear deal, as recommended by Macron, not abandon it. In dealing with Kim, the U.S. is stronger if it can draw on support from South Korea, Japan, China and Russia, and other members of the UN Security Council — each of them, again, acting in their own best interests. Fighting climate change and other global ills is far more effective if done with partners.
For the moment, at least, the president seems deaf to these arguments. Others must take up the burden, as far as they can.
Congress should vet the president’s national-security nominees promptly and thoroughly. His decision on the Iran deal — he’s promised it by May 12 — should receive careful congressional scrutiny. Congress should pass a new authorization for the use of military force that restores its oversight powers. And given the president’s effort to bend or break the rules of global trade, Congress should consider withholding his authority to conclude trade deals (which expires this July) while resolving to block initiatives that restrict trade rather than expand it.
America's allies must also step up — to defend the U.S.-built international order that has served them so well. By now Merkel has learned the limits of lecturing Trump; Abe and Macron have learned the limits of flattering him. What's needed instead is a firm and collective defense of the institutions that have governed international relations for more than the past half-century. Where possible, to be sure, build on those arrangements and bring them up to date — with or without the U.S. But for your own sake as well as America’s, don't stand by as Trump lets them fall.
--Editors: James Gibney, Clive Crook
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.