America’s divisive, deleterious culture war started long before January 20, 2017. But during the presidency of Donald Trump, a new front in that war was opened over the question of the future of America’s role in the world. After 70-plus years as the chief architect and underwriter of the liberal post-war order, which continues to produce relative peace and prosperity, the United States—under Trump’s stewardship—has ushered in a period of doubt about the propriety and efficacy of continuing those arrangements.
In a speech today at the United Nations, Trump reiterated fealty to his America-first “doctrine,” leaving little doubt that U.S. support (financial, moral, and otherwise) for institutions, such as the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations, and other consensus-driven organizations predicated on cooperation among nations can no longer be relied upon. These institutions aren’t perfect and can afford some reforms, but Trump is departing significantly from U.S. foreign and international economic policies under Democratic and Republican administrations going back to Harry Truman’s.
Certainly, times have changed and there were never any guarantees that the institutions established after the war would endure—even for as long as they have. But before a critical mass succumbs to Trump’s plausible-sounding arguments that the United States (and all other countries) would thrive if it repudiated international institutions of cooperation and turned inward, consider that the America-first, protectionist, nationalist narrative that Trump has tapped into is nothing new. It has been around, lurking under the surface for many decades, occasionally finding expression in the rhetoric of a populist office seeker here and there. But that narrative is laced with misreads and inaccuracies. It is premised on the idea that, unlike global hegemons of previous centuries, the United States has been this benevolent giant, always acting selflessly and generously.
The United States lent a hand to the victims and the vanquished of the 20th century's worst conflagration. Americans provided the material and wherewithal to rebuild Europe and Japan after the War. We provided resources under the Marshall Plan. We provided a nuclear umbrella, which enabled Europe and Japan and others to focus their own resources on rebuilding their industries, their economies, and their political and civil societies.
Europe and Japan rebuilt. They rebuilt their industries; they rebuilt their infrastructure; they created social welfare systems; and (in the eyes of Trump and his fellow nationalists) they had the gall to start competing with U.S. producers, while maintaining relatively high tariffs in their own markets. All along the way, they never so much as thanked us.
Trump and his fellow nationalists might argue that the world has been ungrateful. They might argue that the world has taken advantage of the United States, that the United States has impeded its own development and potential by making prosperity accessible to others. Trump says: No longer will that be tolerated. Those trade deficits we’ve allowed to accrue over the years? No more! Those rules—under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the World Trade Organization—that we put forward and foolishly agreed to live by ourselves? No more. At least, no more without major changes that tilt the playing field in favor of the United States so that we can begin to recoup the billions upon billions of dollars stolen from us by a cheating, ungrateful world. In fact, Trump and those who think like him may think the United States should be entitled to special dispensation at the WTO because of America’s foundational role, our generosity, and the fact that we opted not to enslave and colonize the world after 1945.
Of course, this is all a naïve and wrongheaded view of history, economics, diplomacy and statecraft. The notion that we live in a zero sum, Hobbesian world where there is limited scope for cooperation is the bogus premise behind the entire America-first platform. The notion that the United States had no interest in helping to strengthen Europe and Japan to resist Soviet expansionism and to afford U.S. exports is too ridiculous to even bother to discuss.
All U.S. presidents since 1945 have had recourse to this more contentious approach to international relations, but none chose that path. Instead, they all preferred the rule of law and supported the institutions underpinning those rules. When people in other countries are free and can prosper, that is unequivocally good for Americans. When Americans can engage in commercial transactions with foreigners, we are all better off. Rules that foster exchange and cooperation are essential. To blow up the system because you may calculate that the United States will lose the least (a sort of limited nuclear war type of doctrine) becomes a plausible course of action to nationalists who think in zero-sum terms.
Washington’s cadre of pro-trade, multilateral, internationalists—among whom I count myself—has failed to convince President Trump and those who favor his America-first brand of economic nationalism that trade is a win-win proposition and that the post-war liberal order underpinning globalization, while not perfect, should be salvaged and renovated, rather the wrecked. We need to do better.
At the UN today, Trump claimed: “The future does not belong to globalists. The future belongs to patriots.” But the smartest patriots know that liberty at home is nourished by economic growth, which is fostered by trade, globalization and its well-functioning institutions.