President Trump has named his foreign policy “America First” after the failed isolationist policies promoted by the Republican Party in the 1930s. But he often seems to act more in accord with another unsuccessful Republican approach to international affairs: the “dollar diplomacy” practiced between 1909 and 1912 by President William Howard Taft and his secretary of state, Philander Knox, a corporate lawyer who helped form U.S. Steel.
Claiming they were substituting “dollars for bullets,” the portly Taft and the peppery Knox subordinated U.S. foreign policy to the interests of U.S. corporations. They promoted loans from Wall Street banks to developing countries from the Caribbean to China and sent in the Marines when U.S. property was at risk from revolutionaries. There was at least a patina of idealism to this commerce-first policy, because Taft and Knox assumed — wrongly, as it turned out — that U.S. investments could stabilize war-torn lands.
Trump’s dollar diplomacy, by contrast, is devoid of any hint of higher purpose. His is the most amoral U.S. foreign policy ever. It is all about “winning” for the United States, which he defines in exactly the same dollars-and-cents way that he did as a property developer. It is as if he were the chief executive of United States Inc., and his only purpose were to deliver a profit for its 325 million stockholders. If he is familiar with the creed upon which this country was founded — “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” — he gives no sign of it. All he cares about is the pursuit of lucre.
That Trump sees the world almost exclusively through a commercial lens helps to explain what he gets exercised about — and what he doesn’t. He gets angry about Canadian tariffs on U.S. milk exports — a “disgrace” and “not fair to our farmers.” He held U.S.-Canada relations hostage for more than a year, causing U.S. standing in our northern neighbor to plummet and potentially damaging one of the world’s closest alliances, just so he could win a minuscule advantage for U.S. dairies.
Trump is also angry about the trade surplus that nations such as Germany, Japan and China run with the United States, because he doesn’t understand what it means. “We lost, over the last number of years, $800 billion a year,” he said in March. “Not a half a million dollars, not 12 cents. We lost $800 billion a year on trade.” Of course, the U.S. doesn’t “lose” on trade: We got a lot of stuff back, from sneakers to computers. But Trump is willing to jeopardize not only our trading relationships but also strategic alliances in his misguided effort to reduce the U.S. trade deficit. (The trade deficit has actually gone up on his watch, because the economy is booming and consumers can afford to buy more foreign goods.)
What is Trump not concerned about? Human rights. He doesn’t see any way to make a buck from condemning China’s roundup of Uighurs or Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, so he ignores those outrages. He occasionally mentions human rights in other countries for tactical purposes but drops the issue as soon as he thinks he can get a “great deal.” North Korea is still the same old regime that he denounced in January for oppressing its citizens “totally” and “brutally.” But now Trump raves about how much he loves Kim Jong Un, because Kim has met with him and offered empty assurances of denuclearization. Trump even professes to see fabulous business opportunities — e.g., beachside condos — in North Korea.
Trump has never called out Vladimir Putin’s transgressions against either his own people or against Ukrainians, Syrians and others. The very fact that the United States has no trade with North Korea and very little trade with Russia works in their favor: Trump can’t be upset that they are “ripping us off,” because they’re simply not doing business with us.
When commercial interests do exist, they typically take precedence over all other considerations. Trump has expressed more outrage about Canadian milk tariffs than about the reported murder and dismemberment of Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi. He is obsessed with maintaining U.S. trade ties with Saudi Arabia — and in particular a mythical $110 billion arms deal. (The U.S. actually delivered $5.5 billion in weapons to the kingdom last year.) In March, he was claiming that the Saudi deal would produce 40,000 jobs. Now he says it’s half a million jobs — or even a million. In fact, the entire U.S. defense industry only employed 355,500 workers in 2016. Trump won’t stand up for American values because he has a vastly exaggerated idea of how much money the U.S. stands to make by turning a blind eye to Saudi atrocities.
The original dollar diplomacy was discarded by 1912 because it didn’t produce the benefits that Taft and Knox promised. Their foreign policy would be replaced by Woodrow Wilson’s excessively idealistic and interventionist approach. The most successful foreign-policy presidents, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush, have been those who are able to strike a balance between America’s commercial, strategic and idealistic interests. Sometimes that has even meant taking a short-term loss — the Marshall Plan cost $135 billion in today’s dollars — for the greater long-term good. But Trump doesn’t seem to be aware that there is more to a country than quarterly profit and loss statements.