Shocked and baffled by the results of the 2016 presidential election, America’s traditional allies in Europe and Japan fell back on two forms of conventional wisdom about President Trump.
The first view was that Trump’s seeming unreasonableness was just a mask for his inner pragmatism: He may brag and bully, but what he’s really about is the art of the deal. You can do business with a businessman.
“He’s a negotiator,” an ambassador from Europe told me, hopefully, a few days after the 2016 election. If the United States got a nickel every time someone used that phrase, there would be no national debt.
The alternative notion was that Trump was, indeed, a mercurial egomaniac but could be swayed by flattery and ceremony. Japan’s Shinzo Abe , who rushed to be the first world leader to visit President-elect Trump in the United States, tried it. So did France’s Emmanuel Macron, who rolled out the red carpet and military pomp for Trump in Paris, and then showered him with bonhomie during a state visit to Washington.
Now that Abe, Macron and company have been through the disastrousGroup of Seven meeting this past week in Quebec City, they must face this terrible possibility: What if nothing works? What if Trump cannot be appeased?
There’s been too much denial about the fact that Trump is not, and never has been, a pragmatist, or even merely a showboat; he has an ideology. You almost want to grab the allies by the lapels and scream: “What part of ‘America First’ do you not understand?”
Trump does not have some finite reallocation of economic benefits and costs in mind when he says America is “like a piggy bank being robbed” by the countries with which all previous postwar presidents cultivated close political, economic and military ties — including Canada, whose Lt. Gen. Pierre St-Amand currently serves as the second-in-command of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), the air-defense shield that protects both the United States and its northern neighbor from surprise attack.
He is expressing a grievance that has gripped his brain almost as long as, and almost as rigidly, as the belief in socialism has gripped that of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
This is why the president keeps moving the goal posts in what might otherwise be productive negotiations to update the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico, and why he slapped tariffs on metal imports from Europe and Japan, using “national security” as his threadbare rationale.
“My job at the White House is to help the president get jobs, good jobs, manufacturing jobs to the working men and women of America,” trade adviser Peter Navarro said on “Fox News Sunday” , “and we can’t do that unless we upset this existing world order, which basically is tremendously biased.”
Let me repeat that: American policy is to “upset this existing world order.”
Trump’s is a crude ideology, but it is hardly a new one. Its roots lie in the right-wing resistance to U.S. involvement in the wars of Europe and East Asia before Pearl Harbor.
Trump’s hostility to alliances, meant to keep the United States as a stabilizing presence in those regions after World War II, descends directly from that inward-looking, reactionary strain of prewar American politics, which turns out not to have been destroyed during the 20th century after all.
For the time being, it’s the world’s despots — whether friendly to the United States, hostile or somewhere in-between — with whom Trump seems most eager to deal: Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia and, of course, North Korea.
National security tariffs remain on metals from G-7 countries, but the administration eased punishments for a Chinese company, ZTE, that actually did violate U.S. sanctions by dealing with Iran.
“The president did this as a personal favor to the president of China, as a way of showing some goodwill for bigger efforts,” such as the North Korea talks, Navarro explained.
In addition to wishful thinking, the allies are guilty of the less pardonable sin of failing to address legitimate American commercial concerns more aggressively, when previous White House occupants asked nicely.
President Barack Obama’s Treasury Department mildly rebuked Germany for running up its trade surplus in 2013, and the government of his friend Chancellor Angela Merkel responded frostily.
Still, none of that justifies the rupture Trump is threatening right now. Nor does it make the allies’ predicament any easier.
Unable truly to stand on their own, they would undoubtedly prefer to give Trump some or all of what he wants to salvage their U.S. support, even at this late date.
There are just two problems: He has never specified his “ask”; and even if he did name his price, after all the insults he’s hurled, no one could pay it without accepting humiliation.
If the allies really want to know what it means to accommodate Donald Trump, they should ask the experts: America’s Republican politicians. They can start with “Lying Ted” Cruz.