Can the foreign and domestic critics of President Trump’s latest trade policy moves finally get real – and start talking and acting like adults? I’m not referring to politicians and analysts who have pointed out problems with individual aspects of the President’s recent announcements of tariffs on various trade competitors. I’ve been one of these myself.
Instead, I’m talking about those who keep whining that Mr. Trump’s tariffs and his overall – inconsistently to be sure – emerging “transactional” approach to alliances and other international arrangements are endangering a rules- and institutions-based global order that has served both America and the rest of the world unmistakably well. No description of the post-World War II world could be less accurate and indeed more childish – not to mention more self-serving for the supposed U.S. allies and multinational business interests (and their Washington, D.C. hired guns) that have pushed this canards so insistently.
For the institutions and rules so touted by President Trump’s globalist critics were simply window-dressing created to obscure a much less aesthetically pleasing reality: The postwar (non-communist) world’s success has been based fundamentally on America’s power and wealth, and the consequent U.S. ability to provide what political scientists call “public goods” for those aligned with it. Specifically, it almost single-handedly created the conditions on which success decisively depended: the military protection that countries recovering from war-time devastation could not provide for themselves, and the credit and export markets that were similarly beyond the capacities of their crippled economies. Just as important, during the early post-war decades, the United States could play this role for the most part without excessive security risks and economic costs.
Unfortunately, even the biggest, best-run public goods-providing country will find these arrangements unsustainable, especially on the economic front, and especially if its government is substantially accountable to its people. The essential dilemma was first identified by the Yale University economist Robert Triffin back in 1960, when American power was at or near its zenith.
Triffin’s warning was narrowly economic. He argued that the very free lending and especially spending by which such a country (which political scientists call a “hegemon”) fueled growth around the world would eventually massive international deficits and a global glut of its currency – which was serving as the world’s money – and erode global confidence that currency’s value. Either the hegemon could tighten up – and likely throw the entire world economy into a major downturn. Or it could keep over-lending and especially spending. In this case, its currency would lose enough of its perceived value to end its world-money role, and the world economy would degenerate into chaos. Or the rest of the world could keep stockpiling these excess dollars – which as the French in particular noted would result in the inflation caused by the greenback’s declining value being exported around the world.
Yet in America’s case, the ultimate engines of the paradox – at least in post-World War II America’s case – were foreign policy and domestic politics-related. The over-spending, and consequent deficits stemmed from the United States’ determination simultaneously to incur the expenses of maintaining huge military forces at home and abroad (along with dispensing considerable foreign aid), and of satisfying the American public’s growing demand for social services, without increasing taxes enough to finance these programs responsibly. At the same time, the dilemma was greatly intensified by the refusal of the foreign beneficiaries of these U.S.-provided public goods to pay many more of the costs of their own defense, or to open their markets wider to American exports.
The breakdown of these arrangements in 1971 bore out Triffin’s warnings, but although major adjustments were made globally, the rest of the world continued relying heavily on American security guarantees and markets. And in fairness, a bipartisan American foreign policy establishment addicted to intangibles like “global leadership” and genuinely worried that its European and East Asian allies could not manage their own security affairs in particular responsibly, staunchly resisted any fundamental changes to the status quo.
Fast forward to the mid-2000s, and the exact same fundamental problem reemerged. Further, a Triffin-like situation was greatly worsened by two new developments. First, the Federal Reserve decided to enable reckless over-spending by American consumers by keeping interest rates at peacetime lows not seen for many decades.
Second, American trade policy swelled the international deficits by taking a new, offshoring-focused turn starting with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in the early 1990s, and culminating with multinational companies’ decisions to focus tightly on supplying more and more American business and consumer demand from China, not from the United States.
Not so coincidentally, this trade policy shift was accompanied by the creation of an international organization – the World Trade Organization (WTO) – that was the first such body ever authorized to create both binding rules for any international policy sphere, and to utilize enforcement mechanisms in which the United States enjoys no special standing (as opposed, for example, to the United Nations Security Council, where the United States and other permanent members possess an individual veto over decisions).
A better recipe could not be created for empowering China (and the rest of the world’s major export-dependent economies) to view the United States as an even more attractive dumping ground for surplus production; for undermining America’s internationally recognized right to respond unilaterally; and for consequently enabling footloose multinational companies to supercharge the trade deficits by sending an astonishing amount of the nation’s production capacity to China and other super-low cost countries that could not or would not import remotely as much as they could or would export.
The end result: Rather than the United States winding up exporting inflation and (along with free-riding allies and trade competitors) bringing down a global monetary order, America exported financial instability, triggering the worst worldwide financial crisis, the deepest international economic downturn since the Great Recession, and the weakest U.S. economic recovery on record. And revealingly, to the cheers of the bipartisan American foreign policy and economic policy establishments, the first post-financial crisis president, Barack Obama, kept America’s grand strategy firmly on course.
Although it’s still unclear whether Mr. Trump is choosing an effective combination of trade and alliance policy tactics, his initiatives so far raise even more important questions. Chiefly, is he simply trying to achieve greater security and economic burden-sharing? And even if his aims at present are restricted to securing better deals, is he prepared to scrap American participation in current alliances and other international institutions altogether if U.S. tariffs and other America First-type threats don’t seem to be working?
Nonetheless, the President has opened the door to elevating America’s thinking about its global environment toward the adult levels that ultimately will be needed to prevent today’s lopsided unsustainable international arrangements from disastrous crackups. If his critics want to increase the odds that the best choices will be made, they’ll need to grow up, too.