Analysis

Why Trump Poses No Threat to the Global Order, and China Does

President Trump talks tough about ‘America First,’ but virtually no one in Washington or Wall Street backs him and it’s not going to go anywhere

Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping sit as they pose for photographers before a meeting at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla.
Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping sit as they pose for photographers before a meeting at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla. Alex Brandon/AP

One of Donald Trump’s first acts as president was to rip up the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. This month he pulled out of the Paris climate accord and wants to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.

He’s hectored America’s NATO allies about contributing more money to their defense while notably failing to promise U.S aid in case of attack. Trump is no friend of the European Union. For that matter, he's no friend to any of the organizations and agreements that form the muscles and sinews of the global system.

Trump presents his attitude less as an attack on the U.S.-led global system of free trade, international agreements and rule of law that grew up in the post-war era, as about putting “America First.”

But Trump isn’t a man of big ideas, and his vision of America’s role in the world isn’t based on principles but on his career as a wheeler-dealer.

He is president of the United States, he still sees himself as the CEO of a company – not just any company, but a mid-sized property developer that makes the kind of deals that he used to run. His business was to dicker with banks, government officials, building contractors and tenants, with the of is getting the better end of the bargain than the other guy.

But leading the world’s only full-fledged superpower is a different matter. You’re not CEO of America Incorporated, you're in charge of trying to maintain order in a world that, left to its own leaderless devices, would have little. That often means sacrificing America’s immediate interests to maintain a system that, on the whole, has worked well for the last 70 years, for America, too.

You do have to give up some of your interests in trade treaties and cover other countries’ defense costs, concessions that the wheeler-dealer Trump finds loathsome.

Fortunately, for all his bravado, Trump isn’t really going to dismantle the global system.

Less than five months into his presidency, there is ample evidence that: (1) He doesn’t have any real program to achieve his goals, (2) By dint of his own problematic personality, he has created a state of perpetual crisis in Washington that precludes anyone in his administration who might have some ideas to advance his goals, and: (3) In any case, the big boys in his administration are Wall Street, military and corporate types who don’t really share his America First ideas.

Point (3) is Trump’s biggest problem.

He rose to power by speaking to the anxieties of voters who don’t like the direction America has taken, and who blame a lot of it on globalization.

But these voters have no power apart from their votes. They can elect a president by dint of sheer numbers but they don’t have the media, business, or the political establishment on their side to pursue their agenda.  

If Trump were a true leader, they could have accomplished some of their goals through him enforcing his will, but in Trump, all they have a president who tweets.

We’ll always have Paris

Take climate change  Who really knows what Trump’s views are on this,  although a quick survey of his tweets and campaign speeches suggests that he thinks it’s a hoax and a threat to American jobs and business.

So naturally he pulled America out of the Paris climate accord this month.

Trump voters were thrilled, but the list of supporters pretty much ends there.

U.S. business, even the oil companies, supported staying in the Paris agreement. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, an oil man himself, urged the president not to withdraw and a raft of American states, cities and even oil companies have vowed to do their share as though America had stayed in the pact

Even an archetypal American institution like Walmart said it was keeping to its plan to reduce its carbon footprint with or without the U.S. party to Paris. Meanwhile, the other six members of the G-7 remain committed to the accord and in all events, the U.S. is committed to remaining in it until at least November 4, 2020, coincidentally a day before America’s next presidential election. So Trump’s America isn’t really exiting and may never.

In reality, the threat to the global order isn’t Trump but China.

China first

There’s no small amount of irony in that, because China has ascended to economic superpower status in the system and is even a supporter of the Paris accord. But Beijing leaders are no great fans of transparency, the dilution of national sovereignty or rule of law that are at the heart of the system. It isn’t part of the U.S.-European partnership that had enabled the system to grow and thrive.

Like Trump, Beijing thinks in terms of China First. But the difference between China and America is that China First has the establishment’s backing, and there’s no room for dissent.

As the climate change brouhaha suggests, Trump can’t and won’t destroy the liberal world order. We in Israel should be relieved because we have also benefited from it (imagine Startup Nation without a free flow of capital, trade and people).

The Israelis who are cheering on Trump - and for that matter Brexit and the EU crisis - see it all as part of brave new world where countries can do what they want without being answerable to pesky international organizations. That way the settlements to be left alone to grow and prosper, which is their only real interest. But they’re on the same wrong side of history as their hero.