Is the Trump administration’s foreign policy all that costly? Sure, Donald Trump has squandered America’s soft power and alienated U.S. allies. That gets foreign policy wonks like the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts all worked up. But Trump has yet to encounter a foreign policy crisis beyond those of his own making. Surely, that’s a sign that his foreign policy isn’t awful, right?

Wrong. On Monday, my Washington Post colleague Catherine Rampell wrote her standard incisive essay about how Trump’s policies “repeatedly [prioritize] cheap political wins today over the massive costs they will impose tomorrow.” Unfortunately, that is the exact opposite way one should think about international relations. Last year, Elizabeth Saunders and Jim Goldgeier pointed out in Foreign Affairs that good foreign policy is supposed to work in reverse: “Successful foreign policy is largely invisible. It often means paying up front for benefits that are hard to see until you lose them, or that will only be obvious when you really need them. Sometimes, successful foreign policy even means keeping real victories quiet.”

Now be honest: Could you imagine Donald Trump keeping quiet about any policy success? This is a guy who blabbed top-secret intelligence to Russian officials in the Oval Office. This White House has yet to learn that it is possible to win every news cycle and lose in foreign policy.

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It is true that Trump has yet to wreak catastrophic damage in foreign policy. Neither, however, has this administration done the hard work necessary to solve long-term foreign policy problems. I’m not even talking about global problems such as climate change and counterterrorism. I am talking about an abject failure to take steps to counter trends that will specifically and negatively affect the national interests of the United States of America. This administration is instead acting like the irresponsible neighbor who takes money that’s supposed to go toward insurance and, instead, spends it on scratch tickets.

To see what I mean, take a look at this excellent new Center for New American Security report, “China’s Use of Coercive Economic Measures,” by Peter Harrell, Elizabeth Rosenberg and Edoardo Saravalle (full disclosure: I have co-authored with Rosenberg in the past). The report looks at the evolution and growing sophistication of China’s economic statecraft, including such areas as informal consumer boycotts and  regulatory measures. From their executive summary:

As China’s economy and its economic statecraft become more sophisticated, Beijing is sharpening and expanding its coercive economic toolkit. Its growing set of tools looks quite different from the wide array of U.S. tools. Washington relies on formal, published sanctions, trade controls, or investment restrictions. Instead, Beijing prefers approaches that do not legally link a foreign policy dispute to the coercive measures, creating public deniability and greater optionality for escalation and de-escalation. China typically imposes economic costs through informal measures such as selective implementation of domestic regulations, including stepped-up customs inspections or sanitary checks, and uses extralegal measures such as employing state media to encourage popular boycotts and having government officials directly put informal pressure on specific companies.

The United States is a big country and more insulated from China’s economic pressure than is commonly understood. But U.S. allies are far more vulnerable, which can in turn negatively affect U.S. interests.

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The report contains many suggestions for how the United States should cope with China’s rising economic power. Unfortunately, the odds of this administration implementing them are approximately nil. Consider this sampling of policy recommendations made to the Trump administration:

  • To the greatest extent practical, the Trump administration should summarize its internal research into a published, annual, public report on China’s economic statecraft, including coercive measures.
  • The Trump administration should initiate a formal information-sharing and coordination mechanism with close security partners to gather data on Chinese use of economic coercion and predatory investment or commercial activity.
  • There are several ways the Trump administration could use trade policy to build resilience against Chinese economic coercion. By deepening trade ties between the United States and countries vulnerable to Chinese economic coercion, the United States can offer an important alternative market.
  • The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and the U.S. Treasury Department should offer to work closely with countries that are negotiating free-trade agreements with China to discuss strategy and external support.

I was not sure, when reading this, whether to laugh or cry. The notion that the United States could coordinate with allies while we’re slapping tariffs on them at a breakneck pace is certainly laughable. At this point, even close allies such as Australia trust Xi Jinping more than they trust Donald Trump. The notion of the Trump administration signing a free-trade agreement with any of these countries is even more laughable. The recognition that the United States is squandering any chance of a strategic response to China’s economic statecraft is not funny, however. It is sad.

U.S. inaction in this area will not be felt in the present day. It might not even be felt during the tenure of the Trump administration. But the opportunity costs of this administration divesting itself of close coordination with allies will eventually become noticeable. By that point, however, it will be too late.

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