In his Wall Street Journal column William Galston wonders if President Trump isn’t a lot better at tearing things down than building replacements up:
The late House Speaker Sam Rayburn, a connoisseur of the art of the possible, often said “Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a carpenter to build one.”
In foreign affairs thus far, President Trump’s deconstructive prowess has been much in evidence. Mr. Trump has withdrawn the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Iran nuclear agreement while challenging the basis of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. He sidelined negotiations for a trade deal with the European Union, withdrew from the Paris climate accord, threatened to pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and began a trade war with China. His decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem ended, perhaps permanently, America’s longstanding role as broker between Israel and the Palestinians. Two astonishing summits—with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and Russia’s Vladimir Putin —upended decades of American diplomacy.
For 70 years, America’s role in the world was clear: We would use treaties and multilateral institutions to defend our friends, deter our foes and promote peace, prosperity and democracy around the world. We believed that the strength of our allies strengthened us as well. We made many mistakes and a handful of grave errors, but at least we knew what we stood for, and so did everyone else. No longer.
If President Trump were to offer a calm and coherent defense of what he is doing, it might go something like this: “Yes, I’m breaking up the status quo. But I have no choice. The arrangements that strengthened our country after World War II no longer work. Complex treaties and institutions force us to pursue our interests with one hand tied behind our back. We must be free to use our military, economic and financial superiority to advance our purposes. If we encounter other countries directly, one on one, we are bound to prevail. If we allow our adversaries—and even our friends—to gang up on us, we will lose out.
“And besides,” Mr. Trump might add, “as time went on, we lost sight of what really matters. To maintain our position as leader of the free world, we sacrificed our core economic interests on the altar of diplomatic status. We encouraged our friends and allies to take us for granted and even to take advantage of us. As democracies in Europe and Asia prospered, they could have done far more to defend themselves. Instead, our security umbrella allowed them to be free riders. Our insistence on promoting democracy poisoned relations with autocratic leaders and blocked advantageous deals. In our economic treaties and military alliances, we were willing to accept economic disadvantages in the name of security gains. America’s elites did fine, but our working men and women lost out.
“Look at China. The so-called experts in both parties said that once China entered the World Trade Organization, its economy would become more like ours, as would its politics. Build China’s middle class today, they said, and free markets and representative institutions would follow tomorrow. What did we get? State-subsidized overproduction, increasing autocracy—and millions of stolen U.S. manufacturing jobs. Why should we listen to the carping from the people who got us into this mess?”
In effect, President Trump has issued a huge promissory note to the American people: After I bust up existing arrangements, I’ll replace them with something better.
Mr. Galston may be on to something. Trump’s foreign policy may be an “Underpants Gnome” scheme, from a famous episode of South Park. The gnomes have a plan for getting rich. It goes like this:
Phase 1: Collect underpants
Phase 2: ?
Phase 3: Profit
If President Trump has a vision for Phase 2, he has not elaborated on it. In fairness the world order that Mr. Galston is implicitly defending was such a scheme, too. It assumed a more robust American economy than presently exists. It assumed a more benign ruling elite than we actually have. It assumed less selfish and more prudent allies.
What we have gotten for our trillions in spending and hundreds of thousands of American lives is a Germany that sold the makings of a nuclear weapons program to Iran and factories to China, a hollowed out economy, a China that threatens its neighbors, a plutocracy, and 73 years of nearly continuous war. Only the nature of the enemy has changed. It’s fine for the plutocracy, of course.