Trump at Davos Redux

This writer recently observed a discussion of the Trump administration’s foreign policy by Stewart Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations, a charter member of the Washington foreign policy establishment. The presentation was light on partisan politics and personality attacks and heavy on policy – just what one would want in assessing the opinions which bleed into blather when presented by the Washington Post or MSNBC. The session was disappointing nevertheless.

The essence of the argument:

– Trump supporters do not understand – with a smirk for the unwashed – that the United States is the beneficiary of the world structure (the United Nations; The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade; the World Trade Organization; the North Atlantic Treaty Organization; The UN Commission on Human Rights; the precursers to the European Union) that was created by forward looking visionaries after World War II. There are a few flaw in the human rights organizations, but then again too few to mention.

– “America First” represents a withdrawal from the position of world leadership, not acknowledging that in order to get the benefit of multinational organizations we need to give up some of our sovereignty.  We do this at our own risk, in that others will fill the void. (The speaker jumps to isolationism, rather than the real essence of Trump’s direction – a broad restructuring of international relations to be more in the interest of the United States.)

– Foreign engagement in the 21st century must contain a substantial element of support for moral behavior in other countries, and encouragement of self-determination for ethnic groups like the Kurds. It is hard to define when it is appropriate to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries, and it is best done through the United Nations, but there is an obligation to prevent extreme and large scale denial of human rights.

– There have been many transgressions by the Trump administration – withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement (which would have transferred millions of heavy industry jobs to China and India, and billions of US dollars into third world “green” projects); scuttling of the Trans Pacific Partnership; a demand to renegotiate NAFTA; escalating global income inequality; and immigration policies based on racism and the desire of white America to keep control which they must inevitably lose. One becomes accustomed to these arguments, living in San Francisco.

The interviewer did have one plaintive question. She had heard a woman on TV complain about how the United States had been taken advantage of. How could anyone think that, given our position at the top of the heap? There is no answer from the Washington foreign policy elite. The question is nonsensical, and not worthy of a response. Well, had this been a debate or if the speaker had demonstrated some curiosity as to why some half of all Americans would disagree with his exposition, there would have been three answers.

1. The economic answer. Over the past three decades, under Republican presidents and Democratic presidents, we have transferred millions of manufacturing jobs abroad as the trade deficit has grown from some $100 billion per year to $700 billion. Major spurs include China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001 and the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994.  Hundreds of millions of people in China and Mexico have moved out of poverty – a good thing – but millions of Americans have slid backward. Boardroom arguments about “free trade” and “fair trade” have nothing to do with “balanced trade” which is necessary for the American workers to feel that the system is working for them. Trump gets it; the foreign policy establishment does not.

2. The “world policeman” answer. Since at least the Korean War, the United States has been the country to lead the response when “free world” countries have been under attack. Post 9/11 we have been engaged in endless wars in the Middle East – Afghanistan; Kuwait; Iraq; Syria; Yemen; Somalia. We spend almost as much as the rest of the world combined on the military. The NATO countries are committed to spend at least 3% of GDP on defense; most do not. Our national debt has reached $20 trillion. The American people are tired of both the loss of American lives and the money. Trump gets it; the foreign policy establishment does not.

3. The decisive businessman answer. Prior presidents, particularly Barack Obama, did not deal with problems. The North Koreans began their nuclear program in earnest in the 90’s; presidents Clinton, George W Bush, and Obama kicked the can down the road to the point where it must be dealt with on Trump’s watch.  Trump inherited the war against ISIS  and successfully empowered his generals to destroy the enemy, without getting sucked further into Syria.  Trump has resisted any temptation to solve the problems of other countries – Yemen; Libya; Venezuela. Trump gets it; the foreign policy establishment does not.

Media coverage of the President’s visit to Davos will be largely negative, more so in Europe than in the United States. It is the perfect setting for him to explain his direction to the “swells” who think that they run the world. Hopefully some will be listening.