In a speech this week in Brussels, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gamely tried to place a coherent gloss on the jumble of fictions, fantasies, hatreds and seemingly unquenchable impulses toward self-dealing that make up President Trump’s worldview.
But right on cue, this week has produced a string of new events that underscore once again that this worldview, as a basis for major policy decisions, is failing spectacularly.
In his speech, Pompeo declared that Trump “sees the world as it is, not as we wish it to be,” adding: “He knows that nothing can replace the nation-state as the guarantor of democratic freedoms and national interests.” Pompeo defended Trump’s efforts to revamp the international order on terms supposedly more friendly to U.S. interests, articulating the nationalist trope that international institutions and multilateral cooperation, in their current form, are failing globally and, more important, eroding U.S. sovereignty ― its right and ability to act in its own interests.
To whatever degree Trump’s version of this worldview is really the basis for his decisions, there is fresh evidence that it is producing terrible outcomes:
China and climate change. Friday’s New York Times has a remarkable article reporting that Trump’s posture toward China ― both on trade and climate change ― may be putting the planet at greater risk of long-term warming catastrophe. To oversimplify, Trump’s trade war with China and his decision to pull out of the Paris climate deal are giving ballast in China to those who want to slow its efforts to combat climate change.
Those making this case, the Times reports, are pointing out that Trump’s trade war could hurt the Chinese economy and that the United States is retreating on its own commitment to reducing greenhouse gases, so why shouldn’t China retreat as well? As one expert notes, this is taking “the pressure off greater ambition and faster action” on China’s part, an alarming dynamic, since “we’re already way behind.”
To be sure, there is not yet clear evidence that this is seriously happening. But given that the United States and China are both the largest economies and have the largest carbon footprints, the possibility is deeply worrying climate experts. And remember, our retreat is deeply alarming in and of itself. In carrying it out, Trump is blowing off the scientific findings of his own administration, which has determined that the failure to act threatens truly dire outcomes for the planet and for ourselves.
Trump justifies this response to his own administration’s warning by blithely saying: “I don’t believe it.”
The trade wars. Bloomberg News reports that Trump is not just using tariffs as a tool in his trade wars ― he’s now also wielding policy uncertainty as a weapon. As Bloomberg notes, the driving idea here is that, if Trump can sow doubts about the future of our trading relationships with other countries, that will disincentivize U.S. companies from investing abroad and weaken those countries’ leverage in future talks. This fuses Trump’s economic nationalism with chaos as a governing strategy: Putting “America first” means leaving other countries off balance, supposedly weakening them in their zero-sum struggles with us, which can only have “winners” and “losers.”
But Bloomberg reports that this is creating bad outcomes, too: In practice, it means deep confusion within the Trump administration over what our policy is and what China has promised in ongoing talks, which has rattled markets and has emerged as a “drag on business investment decisions from farm states hit by Chinese retaliatory tariffs.” While there’s a temporary truce with China, many analysts are skeptical that China will give Trump the concessions he wants, and there’s no telling where this war will end up.
Trade deficits. Trump’s zero-sum view of trade has led him to embrace the idea that trade deficits are inherently bad ― signs we’re getting taken advantage of by other countries. This is a highly simplistic view, but regardless, our trade deficits are now soaring, which means he’s failing by his own self-assigned standard. As Heather Long details, this is being caused by Trump’s trade wars, due to which “the United States continues to import a lot of foreign goods but has struggled to sell products such as soybeans abroad.”
The basic problem here isn’t just trade deficits. It’s what his trade-deficit panic says about how weak his grasp on the intricacies of trade really is. Trump calls himself “Tariff Man,” but he doesn’t know how tariffs and trade policy work, and as Paul Krugman notes, there are just no real U.S. constituencies behind what he is doing, which appears rooted in volatile impulses that are producing miserable results.
This is also very much the case on immigration, the other big issue on which Trump is implementing his nationalist vision. Trump is trying everything possible to slash the numbers of asylum seekers and refugees admitted to the United States, on the grounds that they represent a massive criminal and economic threat, that we need to get other countries to stop taking advantage of us by “sending” them, and that we’re already doing more than our global fair share. This, again, is rooted in the goal of strengthening national sovereignty.
But Trump’s depiction of those migrants is actually based on lies, dehumanization and hate. And his underlying ideas about immigration are proving entirely ineffectual in the face of serious problems, which require more regional cooperation and a redoubling of efforts to address migrants’ plight humanely and efficiently, not less of these things.
There’s no question that the liberal international order that Pompeo decried is in need of repair. But as Dan Drezner and Stewart Patrick explain, Trump’s guiding vision is often little more than the notion that unraveling multilateral cooperation wherever possible is inherently good for America, because multilateral cooperation is inherently bad for us ― when in fact it does hold the key to solving problems in a complex, interconnected world, even if its outcomes must be dramatically improved.
Pompeo says that Trump “sees the world as it is, not what we wish it to be.” But as we’re seeing on one front after another, precisely the opposite is true. And the results this is producing are likely to get worse.