Trump’s Creative Destruction of the International Order

The global system was long overdue for a shake-up. Trump has been happy to oblige.

Donald Trump walks to the official G7 welcoming ceremony in La Malbaie, Quebec, Canada, June 8, 2018. (GEOFF ROBINS / AFP)
Donald Trump walks to the official G7 welcoming ceremony in La Malbaie, Quebec, Canada, June 8, 2018. (GEOFF ROBINS / AFP)

Apparently, according to multiple reports, U.S. President Donald Trump blew up the post-Cold War world order during brief, contentious meetings at the G-7 summit in Ottawa this weekend. His summit with North Korea, of course, promises more of the same, though at least in a manner that most support. No nuclear war is a widely shared desire; if one had to choose between binaries, a war of words with allies combined with ending the threat of nuclear conflagration with an adversary is a much preferable outcome than kind words with allies combining with a heightened chance of nuclear winter.

Let’s say, however, that Trump has indeed torpedoed decades of assiduous work to build a global economic and political alliance among the world’s largest economies. Even then, the result might not be as bad as one might think.

First, there’s nothing inherently objectionable about trying to alter a given international order. Such systems are fluid; they should not be fetishized or treated a permanent just because they have served purposes in the past. They should be maintained and refined to meet the evolving needs and changing realities. Second, a world of increasing prosperity would and should, irrespective of the words of an American president, start to become more multipolar as the various actors pursue their interests and prosperity in conjunction with one another. If the Trump administration wants to pursue its economic and diplomatic options outside the framework of its traditional alliances, that would be entirely natural.

In any case, until demonstrated otherwise by actual and significant shift in global trade, this latest diplomatic spat remains a war of words, not an actual rupture in the system.

What’s more, why should anyone view the prospect of Japan working more closely with the European Union, or Germany considering its own strategic and economic needs first, or China working with Pakistan, Thailand, and South Korea on joint economic and infrastructure issues as anything other than a net positive for global economic security, stability, and prosperity? Why should everything run through Washington or New York in order to be stable and interconnected? The post-Cold War international order evolved when China was weak; when the European Union was in its infancy; when what we used to call the Third World was still uniformly corrupt, poor, and unstable; and when the United States dominated global trade.

None of that is true today, and some substantial rejiggering of the system would make sense regardless of Trump. To the degree that the United States provided a global glue or was the “indispensable nation” after 1989, that may have contributed to international stability. It also created friction and instability, given the degree to which the U.S. financial crisis over its domestic housing market became a global contagion. The world shouldn’t view the breakup of the existing system as a negative — provided, of course, that it is replaced with something rather than nothing. A world of interlocking webs of connection, as Anne-Marie Slaughter has noted, could be much more resilient and stable, and if Trump in his bluster and tone-deaf ability to offend and pick unnecessary fights hastens that outcome, all the better.

Of course, for the moment, we are in the realm of angry words, not structural changes. The minor tariffs on steel and aluminum, along with the retaliatory actions of Canada, Mexico, the EU, and China for the moment amount to a few billion dollars in a global trade system in the trillions. These may be the warning shots of an escalating trade war, but until proven otherwise, it is premature to treat these salvos as an Archduke Ferdinand-assassinated-in-Belgrade moment. July 1914 fears are all too common, too easily invoked, and almost never apt.

Threatening to blow up trade agreements is not the same as blowing up trade agreements, and as the British negotiations over Brexit demonstrate, even the direst outcomes lead to much more muddled results. On that score, it isn’t clear that Trump has the legal authority to pull the United States out of NAFTA, for example, nor is it clear what would actually change in terms of trade and tariffs were he to attempt to. It is much easier to react hyperbolically to hyperbolic language than it is to game out whether auto parts plants in Monterrey, Mexico or BMW facilities in Greer, South Carolina will be in any way affected by the next G-7 summit becoming a G-6 meeting with Trump not attending and sending nasty tweets instead.

To be fair, something is changing. China is easing its way into its identity as an economic superpower, and another dozen or so of the world’s most affluent nations, including the G-7 members, are less and less willing to take a back seat to the United States. That likely would have happened no matter who is in the Oval Office, though it may have evolved more amiably. Trump likes to break things first; he likes the idea of tearing down old bridges without building a new one first, or at least he likes to talk as if that is what he likes. That may sharpen or hasten structural changes underway, but for the moment, too much weight is given to his words (or for that matter to Justin Trudeau’s words) and too little emphasis is placed on the much slower-moving shifts in the tectonic plates of the global economic system.

Trump supporters cheer because so many are up in arms. One Fox News commentator suggested that the very fact that the national and global elite are so outraged means Trump is hitting the right notes. Meanwhile, the critics warn of dire times ahead. The obsessive focus on Trump, however, obscures the much more meaningful changes that began before him and will continue after him, whose outcomes remain opaque but would have meant a substantial revision of the international order regardless.

Meanwhile, global trade remains potent and robust, albeit slowing. Technology, however, has disrupted and changed trade as it has with everything, altering the mechanics and economics of manufacturing, increasing the volume of services and digital transactions that do not require container ships, ports, and outsourcing. The G-7 is not exactly equipped to grapple with those shifts, nor are familiar tropes about systems and agreements that stem from earlier periods.

Trump did what Trump does: he stirred the pot, poked the hornet’s nest. As for the rest, the world is evolving in ways that have nothing to do with him, began before him, and will long outlast this particular tempest.

Zachary Karabell is the author of the upcoming Inside Money: Brown Brothers Harriman and the American Way of Power

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