President Donald Trump, speaking on the world’s biggest stage, this week laid for the United Nations his case for patriotism and against globalism. He then doubled down on his determination to push back on China.
If he’s determined to do the first, however, he will fail at the second.
Put another way: If he wants to dramatically reduce U.S. engagement through multilateral institutions, he will lack the leverage to either counter China or shape its behavior.
Thus, President Trump should have instead remade himself as a “patriotic globalist.” After all, it was patriotism at its best that prompted U.S. decision makers after the Second World War to establish an America-led system of alliances and institutions that ended the destructive cycle of zero-sum relations in Europe and Asia.
They did so not out of abstract benevolence or Utopian naivete, but because global engagement ensured American interests. And history has proven them right. Through establishing international norms for free trade and a U.S. military presence around the world to enforce them, U.S. leaders enabled U.S. businesses to securely trade globally, thus creating unprecedented profits and jobs.
Whatever you think of Trump’s style, what appeals to his supporters is that he frequently puts his finger on real problems that other politicians have swept under rugs.
It’s true that U.S. allies haven’t paid enough for their own defense, that China engages in unfair trade and investment practices, that the Obama administration failed to address Iran’s regional misconduct and Syria’s use of chemical weapons, and that conventional approaches to North Korea did nothing to alter its nuclear weapons’ trajectory.
He gets too little credit for identifying and acting upon issues that more conventional politicians had allowed to fester. Yet to achieve lasting progress on any of these fronts, President Trump will need to do better at galvanizing friends and allies and navigating multilateral organizations.
His UN speech betrays a misunderstanding of how U.S. international engagement since World War II has served American interests. Cold War victory over Soviet-style communism and its global influence efforts, without a shot being fired by the principals, came about only due to consistent U.S. leadership of allies and friends, working through acronymic institutions such as NATO, the OSCE, the EU and the IMF.
Hardly a week passes when the U.S.-established order doesn’t face strains, many exacerbated by the Trump administration itself.
On Sunday, Macedonia will vote on whether to join NATO as its 30th member. The likely positive outcome underscores the alliance’s continued attractiveness as stability provider.
Next week will also do much to determine the shape of the British exit from the European Union, given the British Conservative Party congress starting on Sunday. The costs of a “no deal” Brexit would be huge for the British, but any form of Brexit would be a blow for U.S. interests in Europe and the strength of post-war European institutions.
Finally, it remains uncertain whether Canada will join the recent U.S.-Mexico trade agreement and thus strengthen NAFTA, or whether the trilateral trade pact will come undone and lead to even greater trade tensions with America’s nearest neighbor and ally.
These short-term developments are not disconnected strands but rather all relate to maintaining U.S. international interest though existing international institutions and agreements.
The stakes for the international system, however, are highest in the contest between the United States and China over who will have the most influence in shaping the coming century.