The last several days of Trump chaos seem to have vindicated, if not exceeded, the worst fears of those of us who worried during the 2016 election that a President Donald Trump would bring his crass, boorish, reckless campaign style to international relations.
Forget the hopes that he would grow into the presidential role. At the G-7 summit in Canada last week, the president of the United States picked quarrels with America’s allies, particularly Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau; stepped up his trade wars; and suggested readmitting Russia into the group despite the Kremlin’s rogue-state behavior. All this, on the eve of a summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un whose potential perils almost certainly exceed its possible benefits.
Is Trump’s conduct as dangerously unstable as it looks? Or is he being underestimated by conventional pundits who cannot think outside the box?
There are certainly some who make the latter argument. Among them is British historian Niall Ferguson, now based at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. In a new column in the London Times, Ferguson argues that Trump’s “intuitive, instinctive, impulsive” approach may well be the best way of meeting current challenges, such as counteracting China’s economic and strategic power. Ferguson sneeringly depicts Trump’s detractors as effete policy experts who are horrified to see Trump take a sledgehammer to their rules and norms. In spite of all the dire warnings, Ferguson says, Trump’s foreign policy is bringing tangible successes — such as a more pliant North Korean regime — and the U.S. economy is thriving.
It’s true that some of the handwringing over Trump’s wrecking-ball initiatives will likely prove wrong. Withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal was probably the right thing to do. The latest developments strongly suggest that Iran was violating the agreement and covertly working toward nuclear weapon development; today, leaders of many Arab countries are ready to join the United States and Israel in counteracting Iran’s regional clout.
But Ferguson’s other claims of success are irrationally optimistic. Yes, unemployment numbers are good. However, there is evidence that Trump’s “get-tough” trade policies, particularly the steel and aluminum tariffs, are already costing American jobs — and are likely to cost up to 400,000 in the near future.
Proclaiming success in dealing with North Korea is foolhardy at best. Yes, Kim has shut down a nuclear weapons test site — which he apparently no longer needs. There is talk of denuclearization, but with no concrete proposals for the dismantling of missiles or for international inspections. Meanwhile, the North Korean regime, which presides over an enslaved population and which recently tortured an American student to death for allegedly stealing a propaganda banner, gets a massive public relations coup out of a long-coveted coveted summit with the U.S. president.
Meanwhile, Trump’s renewed attacks on NATO, the European Union, and G-7 during and after the summit in Canada — particularly his rejection of a joint G-7 communique and Twitter insults toward Trudeau — continue to undermine the alliance of democracies, ultimately strengthening not only Russia’s but also China’s hand. The rules-based, U.S.-led international order Trump so obviously scorns was hardly perfect, as the Iraq fiasco demonstrates; but it is better than the resurgence of authoritarian empires, which is the likely alternative.
Trump’s suggestion to reinstate Russia’s G-7 membership — unearned when originally granted, and rightly revoked in 2014 after the invasion of Ukraine — is especially ominous. To suggest that Vladimir Putin’s neo-autocratic crony-capitalist regime should join the club of advanced industrial democracies is a stark expression of contempt for the values of liberal democracy.
We can only hope that the free world is strong enough to survive when the American president no longer believes in it.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.