For seven decades America has been the guarantor of global order. It may now become a force for instability
WHEN Donald Trump started to assemble his national-security team, he asked his advisers: “Do you know what constant pour is?” At least one of the generals present confessed that he did not. Well, explained Mr Trump, it is the process whereby the concrete foundations of buildings cannot be allowed to set before being filled; cement mixers must be lined up for many blocks at the ready. The lesson was: the generals may know a lot of fancy jargon, but so does he.
It was quintessential Trump: prickly yet boastful. The assertion that the world is complicated is but a con-trick to befuddle honest Americans who wonder why their country seems less feared by enemies and less respected by allies. In his telling, America’s problems are simple, self-inflicted and reversible. It is hard to think of a president-elect less versed in the workings of the world than Mr Trump; or of one more willing to upturn the global order shaped by America in the seven decades since the end of the second world war.
Mr Trump has described his foreign policy in only the vaguest terms, preferring such bumper-sticker slogans as “America First” to detailed plans. To the extent that it can be divined, his programme involves threatening to slap tariffs on imports from China and Mexico; demanding that allies like Japan and the Europeans pay more for their defence; and being nicer to strongmen like Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. A good president, like a real-estate mogul, must be “prepared to walk” away from a bad deal; and it helps if he is unpredictable. Richard Nixon may have resorted to the madman theory of diplomacy to frighten enemies during the cold war. But Mr Trump’s politics of deliberate uncertainty is terrifying America’s friends and partners: no trade treaty, international institution or alliance is sacrosanct.
America’s allies, though mostly horrified, are scrambling to congratulate him in the hope of limiting the damage he might cause. Other demagogues who denounce elites and the liberal, multilateral, rules-based order are elated. Florian Philippot, an adviser to Marine Le Pen, leader of the xenophobic National Front (FN) in France, exulted on Twitter: “Their world is falling apart. Ours is being built.”
The one area of foreign policy about which Mr Trump’s views are clear and consistent is trade. He has grumbled about it since the 1980s, when he would appear on TV and claim that Japan was robbing America blind (by selling Americans reliable cars at reasonable prices). On the campaign trail, he has redoubled his anti-trade tirades. Whether addressing grey-haired ex-factory hands in Ohio or greeting reporters at his brass-plated skyscraper in Manhattan, he has denounced incompetent and corrupt elites for shipping jobs abroad. China is “killing us”, Mr Trump told The Economist last year. “The money that they took out of the United States is the greatest theft in the history of our country.” (In fact, the money in question was willingly paid for Chinese products.)
Depending on the week, Mr Trump’s remedies have included a promise to declare China a currency manipulator, and threats to slap tariffs of 5%, 10% or even 45% on imports to close America’s trade deficit (see chart 1). He has vowed to tweak the tax code and browbeat the bosses of such giant firms as Ford, Apple and Boeing until they make more of their products at home.
Miffed with NAFTA
Speaking before the election, Mr Trump’s senior trade adviser, Dan DiMicco, the former boss of Nucor, a big steelmaker, set out several actions the president will take in his first 100 days. These include starting to renegotiate trade pacts such as the NAFTA accord with Mexico and Canada (and threatening to pull out if they won’t play ball). Every future trade agreement, among them the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) between America and 11 other Asia-Pacific countries, and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the European Union (EU), will be put on hold. “Whether they go forward depends on whether we can return to balanced trade, and whether they add to GDP growth,” Mr DiMicco said. “The era of trade deficits is over. It will be: let’s talk, but otherwise we put tariffs on.”
Mr DiMicco cited the decision by Ronald Reagan (a favourite of Trump supporters) to impose a 45% tariff on Japanese motorcycles in the 1980s: “That brought people to the negotiating table.” Yet it seems implausible that trading partners will stand idly by should America raise tariffs. A trade war would come as protectionism is already on the rise. The World Trade Organisation predicts that global trade this year will grow less quickly than the world’s GDP for the first time in 15 years.
The Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE), a think-tank, has estimated the impact of Mr Trump’s trade policies under three scenarios, ranging from “aborted trade war”, in which Mr Trump is forced to lower tariffs within a year of imposing them, to a “full trade war” with Mexico and China. In the former case, global supply chains are disrupted and 1.3m private-sector American jobs are lost; in the latter, the damage includes the loss of 4.8m American jobs and would spill over into the services sector, too. Adam Posen of the PIIE says Mr Trump’s trade policies would be “horribly destructive”.
Neighbour makes bad fences
They may prove even more devastating abroad, especially in Mexico, where the peso slumped against the dollar. Enrique Peña Nieto, the Mexican leader, was chastised for inviting Mr Trump for talks in August. Mr Trump’s habit of insulting Mexican immigrants and his rallying cry—that he would build a wall along America’s southern border and make Mexico pay for it—have earned him much hostility in Latin America. But Mr Peña may now feel vindicated, as he has to deal with the president of his giant northern neighbour.
Mr Trump’s victory comes, cruelly, just as left-wing populism in Latin America is in retreat, opening opportunities for closer trade between the two halves of the Americas. Before the election, Latin Americans’ opinion of the United States was warmer than at any point this century. Mr Trump’s victory risks rekindling anti-yanqui sentiments, especially if he repudiates Barack Obama’s policy of normalising relations with Cuba.
Across the northern border, meanwhile, Canada frets about the economic harm that will be caused should NAFTA collapse. The United States buys about three-quarters of Canada’s exports. Some Canadians fondly imagine that a wave of young, well-educated Americans will move north, as they did during the 1970s. However, this is unlikely. A Trump presidency will hardly scare people in the way that the prospect of being drafted to fight in Vietnam did. (As Mr Trump doubtless recalls, though he was lucky enough to receive five deferments during the war.)
Mr Trump has repeatedly said that America’s willingness to defend its traditional allies should depend on whether they pay their fair share for their defence—which in Mr Trump’s view includes paying America in cash to cover the costs of protecting them. America has a justified complaint: it spends far more on defence than its European and Japanese allies put together (see chart 2). But Mr Trump risks upending the basis of post-war global security—particularly in Asia, where China is menacing its neighbours; and in Europe, where Russia has annexed Crimea and stirred a proxy war in eastern Ukraine.
In Asia American strategy has for decades been built on three pillars: open trade and the prosperity that flows from it; strong formal and informal alliances, from Japan to Australia to Singapore; and the promotion of democratic values. It is not clear that Mr Trump cares for any of them.
Mr Obama’s “pivot to Asia”—a promise to pay more attention to the world’s largest and most buoyant region—is under threat. Mr Trump will unnerve Japan, America’s staunchest friend in Asia. China may risk greater assertiveness—particularly in the South China Sea, where it has built up several reefs and atolls into military bases.
Mr Trump has suggested that Japan and South Korea should develop their own nuclear weapons rather than shelter under America’s umbrella—a recipe for regional instability and a nuclear arms race. Neither country is close to considering the possibility, and Mr Trump has played down the remarks. But fear will grow of American disengagement from Asia.
The TPP trade deal, the economic pillar of Mr Obama’s pivot to Asia, was sold as an attempt to set the world’s economic rules before they are dictated by China. But Mr Trump sees it as allowing China to come in through the back door. TPP’s proponents held out a faint hope that it could pass in the lame-duck Congress. That is now impossible. Mr Trump also says he will pull America out of the Paris climate treaty and abrogate Mr Obama’s climate agreement with China—one of the few bright spots in Sino-American relations.
Though China would be hurt by a trade war with America, Chinese hawks spot a geopolitical opening. They see Mr Trump’s election as confirmation that China is a rising power and America a declining one. “We may as well let the guy go up and see what chaos he can create for the US and the West,” wrote Global Times, a Chinese newspaper with links to the armed forces.
The thin Baltic tripwire
Mr Trump’s victory is sending shock waves through NATO, the world’s most successful military alliance. In his book “The America We Deserve” in 2000 he said that eastern Europeans should be left alone to fight out their ancient feuds. The most vulnerable point for NATO will be the Baltic states—lying on a small, flat, thinly populated strip of land with few natural frontiers and nowhere to retreat to. Providing a credible defence for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania has been NATO’s biggest headache in recent years. The alliance has started to rotate tripwire forces through them and has cobbled together rapid-reaction forces. But NATO’s ability to deter Russia rests chiefly on Russia believing that America will act decisively and speedily in a crisis.
Fearing that Mr Trump would not, the Baltic states will now start preparing for the worst—they have boosted their territorial defences and conduct regular drills in guerrilla warfare; and they have developed defence ties with neighbouring countries such as non-NATO Sweden and Finland. They worry that Russia might seek to exploit the lame-duck period in Washington to create new facts on the ground.
Whether or not Russia takes such a gamble, the Kremlin is already crying victory. Two days before Americans voted, Dmitry Kiselev, Russia’s propagandist-in-chief, declared that the campaign had been the dirtiest in America’s history: “It was so horribly noxious that it only engenders disgust towards what is still inexplicably called a ‘democracy’ in America.” Mr Putin hopes that if Western democracy seems less attractive, there is less risk of more “colour revolutions” in Russia’s backyard.
That Mr Trump openly admires Mr Putin is a welcome bonus for the Kremlin. Mr Putin expressed the hope that Russian-American relations would improve. His dream is to see Western sanctions lifted and for Mr Trump to agree to a Yalta-style deal that would recognise a Russian sphere of influence in its “near abroad”.
There are jitters in the Middle East, too. Mr Trump has mocked the folly of toppling dictators in Iraq or Libya (though he once backed both interventions). He has also blamed American leaders for not seizing oilfields in Iraq. “We go in, we spent $3trn. We lose thousands and thousands of lives, and then look, what happens is we get nothing. You know it used to be to the victor belong the spoils,” Mr Trump said in September.
Mr Trump called Mr Obama the “founder” of the Islamic State (IS), because his withdrawal of troops from Iraq created a vacuum in which the terrorist group thrived. Without offering much detail, Mr Trump has said he would “bomb the shit out of” IS. He has also appeared to accept the notion, pushed by Russia, that Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, is a bulwark against Sunni extremism rather than a despot who provokes it. That suggests that Mr Trump will probably let the Pentagon finish the job of driving IS out of the Iraqi city of Mosul if it has not already fallen by the time he is inaugurated on January 20th. But he has shown little appetite for sustained engagement in the Middle East.
Critics, and there are many among veterans of recent Republican administrations, note that many of Mr Trump’s ideas would break American or international law. They shudder when he calls for the return of torture for terrorist suspects, and for the killing of terrorists’ families as a deterrent (which would be a war crime).
Gulf Arab leaders have been appalled by Mr Obama’s policy—his support for revolts against Arab dictators, his reluctance to be drawn into the war in Syria and his decision to sign an agreement with Iran to limit its nuclear programme. But they are even more worried about Mr Trump’s unpredictability and possible isolationism. “Russia, Iran, Iraq’s Shia militias, Syria and Hizbullah all benefit from America’s vacuum in the region and support Mr Trump,” says Oraib Rantawi, a Jordanian analyst. To that list add Egypt’s strongman, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, to whom Mr Trump has promised “loyal friendship”.
Like Mr Obama, Mr Trump refers to the Gulf’s oil-rich Sunni monarchies with disdain. He has also caused outrage by showing contempt for Muslim migrants and demanding that “radical Islam” be named as the true cause of terrorism.
“Trump will cut off America’s aid to the opposition,” says a forlorn Syrian rebel spokesman in Istanbul. “Aleppo will fall to the regime and opposition units either dissolve or shift to the extremists.” Iraq’s marginalised Sunnis are similarly downbeat. Many had hoped that American forces would stay the course after the expected recapture of Mosul to oversee their rehabilitation in Iraqi politics.
When talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Mr Trump pointedly does not mention the need to establish a Palestinian state. The Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, will probably be happy to have an American president who never presses him to trade land for peace or stop Jewish settlement-building in the West Bank. But those who know Mr Netanyahu say he is sceptical. “Bibi is risk-averse and hates surprises,” explains an ally in his Likud party. “Trump is unexpected and volatile and Bibi is like many in the Republican establishment who see him as a wild card and don’t trust him.”
America’s dealings with Iran seem likely to shift in ways that, paradoxically, may please the hardliners there. During the campaign, the state broadcaster devoted much airtime to Mr Trump’s mudslinging. The Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, joined in, praising the “straight-talking” Mr Trump. Confidants cheered Mr Trump’s anti-Saudi rhetoric and his good relations with Mr Putin. And so what if he loathes the nuclear agreement, or assents to Congress killing it off? Iranian conservatives have always viewed that deal with grave suspicion, as part of an American plot to gain control of their country.
Following close on Britain’s referendum to leave the European Union, Mr Trump’s election will boost populists everywhere, especially in Europe, by breaking the myth that anti-establishment groups are unelectable. The next test will be Italy’s constitutional referendum in December. A defeat for the prime minister, Matteo Renzi, which seems likely, could lead to the undoing of his government and the rise to power of the populist Five Star Movement, which wants a referendum on the euro.
Trumpeting the Donald
Then there is France. Could Marine Le Pen, leader of the ultranationalist FN, win the presidential election next spring? Before Mr Trump’s victory, the question seemed absurd. Polls suggest that she will win one of two second-round places. This in itself would be a victory of sorts, repeating the achievement of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in 2002. But no polls have indicated that she could beat any of the centre-right candidates likely to face her. Now, her victory is no longer unthinkable. There was no disguising the delight at the FN headquarters in Paris. A jubilant Ms Le Pen, congratulated the American president-elect and praised the “free” American people. Even Mr Le Pen, who has fallen out with his daughter, tweeted: “Today the United States, tomorrow France!”
The parallels between Ms Le Pen and Mr Trump are striking. Both trade on simplified truths and have built platforms on rejection and nostalgia. Both have cast themselves as outsiders who stand up for people scorned by the elite. Mr Trump and Ms Le Pen are both protectionist, nationalist and fans of Mr Putin. Mr Trump wants to scrap trade deals and is impatient with encumbering alliances. Ms Le Pen wants a referendum on “Frexit”; if it passed it would spell the end of the EU.
One difference is rhetorical excess. Ms Le Pen is in some ways a Trump lite. She may share many of his reflexes, but her language is more cautious. She has never, for instance, called for all Muslims to be banned from entering France, but rather for an end to an “uncontrolled wave” of immigration. She does not promise to build walls, but to control borders. The problem, she says, is not Islam but what she calls the “Islamification” of France. In France, where Ms Le Pen is trying to transform a one-time pariah movement with neo-Nazi links into a credible party of government, such nuances remain an asset.
Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary and prototype European populist, who talks of creating an “illiberal” democracy, was one of the few European leaders to endorse Mr Trump’s campaign. The Polish government, which is in many ways as populist and nationalist as Mr Trump, has been more cautious. It may dislike Muslim migrants, but it fears Russia more, and would love to see more American troops deployed on its territory.
With America in isolationist mood, Britain on the way out and France paralysed, it falls increasingly to Germany to preserve the European order. Many Germans are horrified by Mr Trump’s disdain for due process. “What sets Trump apart from any major US politician—let alone presidential candidate—in living memory is his overt, chilling contempt for the fundamental principles of the constitution. That is familiar to a German in the worst possible way,” says Constanze Stelzenmüller of the Brookings Institution, a think-tank. Yet the chancellor, Angela Merkel, weakened by the past year’s refugee crisis, will be largely reduced to “lots of hand-wringing and rhetoric and virtually no action”, says John Kornblum, a former American ambassador to Germany.
If Mr Trump’s triumph augurs yet more populist victories elsewhere, the EU itself may find it hard to hold together. A remote, complex and technocratic body, the EU is the perfect whipping boy for demagogues. As Gérard Araud, the French ambassador to Washington, put it in a tweet (now deleted): “After Brexit and this election, everything is now possible. A world is collapsing before our eyes.”
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