PARIS — The president doth protest too much, methinks.
He and his people are trying a lot too hard to set up Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as a fall guy. They continue to blame Trudeau’s softly delivered promise not to be pushed around on trade for provoking Trump’s tantrum at the end of the Group of Seven summit in Quebec. The ferocity of President Trump, his aide Peter “Special Place in Hell” Navarro and others is the kind of unintended but revealing signal that poker players call a “tell.”
What could they be trying to hide under a smokescreen of manufactured anger about Trudeau’s unremarkable remarks? A little-noticed (except here in France) event suggests a truly scary answer. The episode in Quebec was the second such Trump-inspired trade communique fracas in 10 days. Trump may well be mounting an all-out assault on global trade organizations and rules as a matter of policy and design, not just pique or domestic politics.
I have covered a dozen or so of the annual summits of the major industrial powers now known as the Group of Seven, where newsworthy events have included Ronald Reagan (quite justifiably) nodding off during a meeting in Venice and Francois Mitterrand writing postcards home from London while his colleagues droned on. These are not gatherings that produce communiques that cause shouts of “Stop-the-presses!” or deep thumb-sucking analysis.
The same is even truer of summits of the 35-nation, Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The OECD is the home of worthwhile studies and virtuous programs to increase members’ prosperity and commerce, and a once-a-year gathering of national leaders.
French President Emmanuel Macron personally hosted this year’s meeting here and urged attendees to produce a communique reinforcing “strong multilateralism,” especially in fighting the effects of climate change and protectionism. For two months, member-states negotiated the terms of the communique and finally reached agreement — only to have the White House block it just before the agreement was to have been unanimously endorsed on May 30.
The French released the document anyway, archly noting that “a consensus minus one” had blessed its contents. That is a very French way of describing America Alone.
Paris was prelude for Quebec and for Trump’s initial acceptance of an equally unexceptional statement of general principles on international cooperation, followed — presumably after having been spun up by Navarro and other antiglobalist aides — by his decision to back out and blame it all on Trudeau. (Navarro’s subsequent apology for the harshness of his language, but not its content, will do little to remove the damage done.)
My first reaction was to think about the U.S. diplomats and other government officials who had labored on the two texts in good faith, achieved difficult compromises that protected American interests and then seen their work trashed by the know-nothings and bureaucratic bullies Trump has gathered around him for the apparent purpose of making sure he follows his own worst instincts. In a career of working abroad as a correspondent and columnist, I had come to respect and admire officials who did this kind of work for the State Department and other agencies. But now they — and the very work they do — are being sold out and made laughingstocks by the president they supposedly represent.
In recent conversations here, European officials cast a more sinister light on what they think Trump has in mind in picking very public fights with America’s closest allies and the institutions they and the United States have created to instill some order and fairness in the international system. These officials fear that Trump is laying the groundwork for a U.S. decision to withdraw from the World Trade Organization, the 164-nation body that adopts and enforces global rules of trade and provides dispute settlement mechanisms when conflicts between nations arise.
Trump may be dreaming that undoing the world’s rules of trade would let America’s overwhelming economic power reorder global trade balances in this country’s favor. The president may welcome such a very Trumpian, dog-eat-dog world. But even if that is not Trump’s intent in whipping up popular anger against globalization, such a world could well be the result of the reckless course he has chosen.