Leader of the Unfree World

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

President Donald Trump speaks to U.S. military troops and their families at Naval Air Station Sigonella in Italy. 

He’s cool with the Saudis, he’s down with Duterte, he’s effectively a Putin pal. With Western Europe, not so much.

It may be a fool’s errand to try to discern an actual foreign policy from President Donald Trump’s tweets, pronouncements, phone calls to foreign leaders, and encounters with them on his recent jaunt through the Middle East and Europe. But after so many tweets and phone calls and pronouncements and encounters, we’re obligated to try.

When we do, three distinct tendencies emerge.

The first is an economic nationalism that ranges from reasonable and long overdue to just plain cockeyed. The one commendable part of Trump’s foreign policy is his elevation, if largely rhetorical, of the interests of American workers (to be sure, chiefly white male workers in manufacturing) over the economic interests of other nations (which are often really the interests of U.S. multinational corporations). Indeed, this is an area where a more activist policy—against, for instance, the Chinese dumping of state-subsidized products such as aluminum and solar panels, at prices deliberately set so low that they wipe out their American competitors—would be welcome.

Instead of attacking these Chinese practices, however, as he frequently did during his campaign, Trump has opted to attack Germany, which, with China, is the nation that enjoys the largest trade surpluses. Unlike China, however, Germany does not export products made with cheap labor, nor does it suppress its workers’ efforts to form unions. On the contrary, the average hourly compensation (wages plus benefits) of a German manufacturing worker is $42.42; an American manufacturing worker’s is $37.71. Germany doesn’t dump cheap goods into our market; it specializes, rather, in high-end products that appeal to consumers on quality rather than price.

By using the euro rather than a currency hitched to its own strong economy, Germany is able to depress the cost of its products, of course. It also has held its (high) wages from rising higher through agreements with its unions. That, in turn, has also depressed German domestic consumption and led to a greater reliance on exports. But the real victims of these policies are the other members of the Eurozone, which have trade deficits with Germany that, as a percentage of their GDP, are far larger than ours. That’s a major problem, but it’s more Europe’s than America’s.

The second tendency that can be gleaned from Trump’s foreign policy is what we might call personalism—a policy based on Trump’s business experiences with other nations, as well as his biases and whims. As The Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell has reported, Trump told the Belgian prime minister during his recent trip that the delays he’d encountered in getting a license for his golf course in Scotland soured him on European bureaucracy. Rampell noted that the experience marked a clear contrast with the rapturous official reception and zipping-through-permitting he enjoyed when building his golf course in Dubai.

What Trump clearly admires is a nation where the top guy, or guys, can give a clear yes or no, and that’s all it takes to make things happen. Indeed, he’d clearly like to get away with that here in the Good Old U.S.A., but those damn laws, agencies, checks, and balances all get in the way. He fires James Comey, and still the FBI continues its investigation. That’s not how they do it, apparently, in Dubai, or Saudi Arabia, or the Philippines, or Russia.

Which brings us to the third tendency shaping Trump’s foreign policy: his preference for autocracy over democracy. He admires strong men and tin-pot dictators in countries where those men (and they are always men) can declare, l'état, c'est moi. They can be illiberal democrats, like Hungary’s Victor Orban; monarchs, like the sultans of the oil emirates; or plain autocrats, like Putin. The key is that they are unconstrained by opposition, minority rights, or democratic obligations; their will is law. That’s why the eroding democracies of Eastern and Central Europe like Hungary and Poland appeal to him more than the established democracies of Western Europe that have been traditional U.S. allies

To say that this is a profound reversal of American policy, or even American self-definition, is not to deny that the U.S. has in the course of its history frequently defended a long and inglorious list of autocrats: military dictators in Latin America; the Shah; the Saudis; and the South Africans who ruled under apartheid. But throughout our history, our image of ourselves, however sanitized or deluded, has been that of a democracy finding common cause with democrats everywhere, and at least under our strongest foreign-policy presidents—Jefferson, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt—the reality often lived up to that image.

Trump has no apparent interest in keeping even that image alive, abroad and perhaps at home. By dint of tweet and phone call, he seems inclined to form a kind of Autocratic International.

This raises an almost existential question for the diplomats and the members of our armed forces who carry out our foreign policy: Is this the mission they signed on for? Unless they’ve joined up since Trump took office, America was generally not in the business of promoting (much less emulating) autocracy when they enlisted to protect its interests and advance its values.

They can view Trump as a temporary aberration and soldier on as best they can, trying to stay true to the values of pre-Trump America. They can quit. They can join the opposition. Honorable choices all, and sad ones.

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