Listen closely. That sound you heard at Wednesday’s joint news conference between the presidents of the European Commission and the United States was Donald Trump backtracking once again. This has become a familiar routine. It goes something like this: Begin by hurling insults at the other side, some of which have a basis in reality but are mostly wild exaggerations. Threaten extreme consequences. Then meet with the other side, backpedal and triumphantly announce that you have saved the world from a crisis that your rhetoric and actions caused in the first place. Call it the Trump two-step.
Think about Trump’s actions with regard to North Korea. He began by calling Kim Jong Un “a madman who doesn’t mind starving or killing his people” and threatening “fire and fury . . . the likes of which this world has never seen before.” He solved his own crisis by making unilateral concessions to Kim and gushing about how the North Korean people “love” their absolute dictator and how he, Trump, trusts him. The same pattern applies with the European Union, which he only recently described as “worse than our enemies.” Now, he tells us, after meeting with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, that the E.U. and America truly “love each other.” Expect to hear a similar climb-down on China one of these days.
For Trump, there is no cost to this strategy, because his words are weightless. He starts with what he described in “The Art of the Deal” as “truthful hyperbole” (as opposed to the many outright falsehoods that he also tells) and then, when confronted, adjusts to something closer to reality.
There are those who assert that Trump’s seemingly bizarre and unpredictable behavior is actually all part of a canny and wise strategy, that he is playing a kind of four-dimensional chess, operating in space-time. Well, if so, he is getting beaten badly here on Earth. In none of these situations has he actually been able to extract real concessions. His usual approach is to announce something vague, as with North Korea and the trade talks with Europe, or something already in place, such as NATO members’ promise to spend 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense by 2024, and claim it as a victory.
But there is a cost to this bluster and flip-flopping. Trump is creating a reputation for the United States as erratic, unpredictable, unreliable and fundamentally hostile to the global order. Leader after leader in Europe has made this clear. George Osborne told me that when he was Britain’s finance minister, you knew “the United States president had your back.” Neither Britain nor any other country can be sure of this anymore. As Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, put it, “With friends like that who needs enemies[?] . . . We [realize] that if you need a helping hand, you will find one at the end of your arm.”
Economist Adam S. Posen argues that countries are now bypassing the United States and constructing a “post-American world economy.” You can see this in the flurry of trade agreements that don’t include the United States, from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was signed minus America, to the trade deal the E.U. just struck with Japan. Many others are in the works.
The most dramatic indication of the world sidestepping the United States, Posen says, is the decline in foreign investment. “It’s fallen off a cliff,” he told me. On average, net foreign investment into the United States has dropped by half since 2016. “The decline is all the more worrying,” Posen writes in Foreign Affairs, “since many factors should have been pushing direct investment in the United States up this year. The massive fiscal stimulus passed by Congress should have increased [foreign investment] in three ways: by boosting spending, which increases U.S. growth prospects; by making the tax code more favorable to production in the United States; and by cutting the corporate tax rate.”
Perhaps some of the decline in investment is part of a longer-term trend — other countries are growing faster than the United States. But for decades, that reality has been countered by another reality — that among the world’s rich nations, the United States was unique in having good growth prospects coupled with stable, predictable, pro-market policies. Trump’s attacks on trade and allies, his willingness to punish and reward individual companies, and his general unreliability all add up to a picture of policymaking that looks more like that of an erratic developing country run by a strongman. The difference is, America’s strongman has the power to disrupt the entire global economy.