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Look out China, Mexico, Japan and Germany: How trade shapes Trump’s worldview

President Donald Trump waves after taking the oath of office as his wife, Melania, and daughter Tiffany Trump stand beside him. (Jim Bourg/AP)
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By cozying up to Russia, and in his disdain for NATO, President Trump appears to have flipped decades of U.S. foreign policy thinking on its head. It has left many experts puzzled, and plenty outraged.

But for anyone trying to figure out Trump’s worldview, here’s a really interesting way of looking at things, courtesy of John Robb, who runs the Global Guerrillas blog and is an author and military analyst.

In a nutshell, Robb argues that trade — rather than national security — dominates Trump’s foreign policy thinking, inverting decades of U.S. practice. By implication, that makes any country running a large trade surplus with the United States a direct competitor.

If Robb is right, that’s very bad news for China, but it doesn’t make welcome reading for countries such as Mexico, Germany and Japan. Unless they can take steps to reduce their trade imbalances with the United States, they are unlikely to be fully trusted by a man who sees trade as a zero-sum game, and sees anyone “beating” the United States as a threat.

First, here’s the analysis, in Robb’s own words:

  • Since WW2, U.S. foreign policy has been completely dominated by national security policy. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a U.S. policy that doesn’t view the world through a militaristic, cold war lens. This means that ALL other aspects of foreign policy are conducted in support of (slaved to) national security policy. In particular, U.S. trade policy is configured to promote the economic growth of allied nations (originally to fight the Cold War) even if these trade relationships damage U.S. economic performance.  
  • Trump inverts that policy relationship. In Trump’s post-Cold War world, U.S. foreign policy will be dominated by trade policy. Even national security policy will be subservient to trade policy. If trade policy is dominant, we’ll see China, Mexico and the EU (Germany) become competitors. Russia, in contrast will become an ally since it doesn’t pose a trade threat.  

So what does this mean in practice? China runs by far the largest trade surplus with the United States, some $319 billion in 2016. That’s nearly half of the U.S. trade deficit of $666 billion with just one country. In fact, China bought just $104 billion in U.S. goods last year, but exported some $423 billion worth of goods to the United States.
No surprise, then, that Trump took less than 10 seconds into the first presidential debate to slam China for devaluing its currency and stealing American jobs.

Trump, of course, has also taken issue with China over its island-building in the South China Sea, and he has publicly questioned American adherence to the one-China policy, the basis for diplomatic relations between the two countries that rules out independence for the island of Taiwan.

But the implication of the trade-first philosophy is that neither Taiwan nor the South China Sea really matters to Trump, except as ways to beat up on a country he sees as a direct economic threat.

Indeed, he has suggested as much, telling Fox News last month that he didn’t know why the United States had to be bound by the one-China policy “unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.”

The other implication, of course, is that the deterioration in U.S.-China relations is probably here to stay, as long as Trump sticks around in the White House.

Beijing could generate goodwill by moving to open its markets more to foreign goods and investment, and Trump could declare victory if he convinces a manufacturer here and there to relocate to some jobs from Asia to the United States. But China’s trade surplus is unlikely to vanish overnight.

Here’s Robb again:

  • National security under this regime will be used to reinforce and grow positive trade relationships. For example, military tension with China creates the opportunity for sanctions that simulate the function of tariffs (allowing the U.S. to circumvent trade organizations and domestic resistance to tariffs). In a national security policy slaved to trade, any and all security guarantees extended to other nations will require a positive trade arrangement with the U.S. The U.S. simply won’t protect or extent security guarantees to any nation that has a non-beneficial economic relationship with the U.S. (i.e. runs a trade deficit). 

Of course, trade and national security are arguably not either-or choices, but are often interlinked. Indeed, China’s large trade surplus is one reason it has been able to extend its influence across Asia and the rest of the world, in ways that have clear national security implications for the United States. Yet Robb’s argument does yield interesting insights, so let’s run with it a little further.

The second-largest U.S. trade deficit in 2016 was with Japan, at $62.4 billion. Japan largely got a pass from the United States when it used protectionism and state subsidies to build its industries after World War II: then, it was seen as a key strategic ally worth supporting despite running a large trade surplus with the United States.

Trump, wearing trade rather than national security glasses, sees a much less rosy picture. Japan’s auto trade is “not fair,” he said this week. He has also warned Toyota could face tariffs if it builds a car factory in Mexico, and he argued that Japan’s government should pay more of the cost of stationing U.S. troops in Okinawa.

The same goes for South Korea, which runs a $26.5 billion trade surplus with the United States. Trump has taken aim at the cost of the strategic alliance and criticized a free trade deal agreed between the two countries during the Obama administration.

Third on the list comes Germany, with a trade surplus with the United States running at $59.6 billion in 2016. If trade is all that matters, perhaps, it should not have come as such a surprise to hear Trump strike right at Berlin’s heart when called NATO “obsolete” and argued that U.S. partners “are not paying what they are supposed to be paying.”

Indeed, he implicitly argues, why should the United States be bearing a disproportionate burden of the cost of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization when, as he suggested in a recent interview, Germany is just another one of those countries being “very unfair to the U.S.?”

Trump has also taken aim at German carmakers, asking why so many Americans drive a Mercedes-Benz when Germany buys so few Chevrolets, and criticizing BMW over plans to build a new plant in Mexico. His criticism may have been unjustified, as Bertel Schmidt argues in Forbes, but perhaps only to be expected.

Trump has accused German Chancellor Angela Merkel of “ruining” the country with her immigration policy, and the two leaders clearly have a very different worldview. But perhaps trade is the real root of Trump’s distrust of Germany.

Fourth on the list comes Mexico, which ran a trade surplus with the United States of $58.8 billion in 2016. Trump, of course, is already preparing to build that wall, and get the Mexicans to pay for it.

Of course, this framework is only one way of looking at Trump’s foreign policy priorities, and it doesn’t explain his hawkish stance over Iran or concern over North Korea’s nuclear program.

But it does help account for his willingness to overturn decades of foreign policy consensus in Washington and undermine alliances that have formed the bedrock of American security since World War II.