Danielle Allen is a political theorist at Harvard University and a contributing columnist for The Post.
President Trump’s foreign policy is perfectly coherent — so coherent, in fact, that we could give it a name: pure bilateralism.
Trump’s foreign policy doctrine has been staring us in the face so plainly that we’ve overlooked it. Here’s my unifying theory: He didn’t get out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal because he disagreed with this or that detail of the agreements. He hasn’t started up deals with Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin and sought to force Xi Jinping to the bargaining table because he has refined views of what he seeks. He got out of the former deals because they were multilateral; he’s working on the latter deals because they are bilateral.
In an interview with CNBC last week, Trump said: “I’m different than other [presidents]. I’m a dealmaker. I’ve made deals all my life. I do really well. I make great deals.”
We’ve heard that dealmaker language plenty, but we haven’t fully registered its content.
Less than seeking to disrupt the old order because he has a considered view about it, apparently Trump seeks a global order that turns around him personally, where global politics is conducted as a series of deals with Donald Trump.
Tony Abbott, former prime minister of Australia, almost saw to the bottom of things in a recent speech published in the Wall Street Journal. Abbott wrote, “What Mr. Trump is making clear . . . is what should always have been screamingly obvious: that each nation’s safety now rests in its own hands far more than in anyone else’s.” Such a view forces a pivot from cooperative multilateralism to pure bilateralism.
Abbott didn’t explicitly point out this doctrine of bilateralism but seems to have intuited it. He focused considerable attention on what sort of bilateral relationship Australia should undertake with the United States. Abbott wrote: “Being America’s partner, as well as its friend, is even more important now, given Mr. Trump’s obsession with reciprocity.”
Then Abbott made a mistake, proposing what we might think of as the Michael Cohen doctrine of foreign policy: total loyalty. “In my judgment, Australia should have upgraded its Iraq mission to ‘advise, assist and accompany’ as soon as America did, and extended it into Syria. Australia should have mounted freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea. And Australia should have not only welcomed the move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem but moved ours, too.” Cohen’s current troubles tell where such total loyalty leads.
Across his business career, Trump sought to use his assets to consolidate his personal power and influence through dealmaking. He rode even the bankruptcy of his casinos into financial advantage and from their ruins drew resources that helped him redefine his development business and add to it a television career.
The important thing to recognize about Trump’s foreign policy agenda — his sequential, bilateral dealmaking — is that we, the American people, with our mammoth consumer market, are now his most valuable asset. Other countries want access to us; this is the ace in Trump’s hand. Like his erstwhile casinos, we’re a stake he can put on the dealmaking table.
Recognizing this helps make sense of how his domestic policy and foreign policy align. He cuts taxes at home; the economy revs up. Voilà, the world’s biggest market is even hotter, and now he can brandish the asset in trade fights to maximal effect. Many have tried to tease out why Trump should follow up his tax cuts, meant to help small businesses, with tariffs that punish many of those same people. That problem disappears when one recognizes that Trump cares about his asset — “the American people” — in a similar way to how he cared about his casinos.
He himself said this, in less coherent language, in his CNBC interview. Given “all this work that we are putting in to the economy,” he asserted, the economy is “maybe as good as it’s ever been ever.” As a result, he said, in reference to his tariffs, “This is the time.” He continued, “You know the expression ‘We’re playing with the bank’s money,’ right?”
The purpose of Trump’s bilateralist foreign policy is not some overarching vision about world peace or democracy’s role in global order. The purpose is simply to maximize Trump’s personal power, to make him personally great, by proving his dealmaking prowess and making himself necessary to the world’s economy. I think that he himself believes that when he is great on his own terms, America is great. That, with him in the White House, his interest is the national interest.
But what about for us? Is pure bilateralism good for the American people? Is Trump’s interest the same as the national interest? A thousand times no. A democratic republic cannot afford to become dependent on the bilateral relationships a single individual has with the other countries of the world. We need to secure and preserve institutional relationships, both multilateral and bilateral, that we the people can control and steer over time through temporary representatives.
Trump is not merely disrupting NATO and other multilateral relationships. He is disrupting the institutional power, durability and sovereignty of the American people.