What the U.S. president really means by pleading for “fairness” is simply for the U.S. to have its way.
Editor’s note: This is the English-language version of a feature I published in Germany’s Handelsblatt close to a year ago, on April 7, 2017 (“We’re All Vassals of the US”)
PDF of Handelsblatt article “We’re All Vassals of the US.”
Or go here for an easily readable copy on The Globalist’s German-language site.
In the Trumpian world view, the United States is by definition superior to all other nations. In such a world, it is inconceivable that the U.S. economy would not run a trade surplus basically with all countries.
For that reason, it is only natural that Mr. Trump truly believes that any nation that has a trade surplus with the United States must simply be cheating.
One might be tempted to believe that Mr. Trump should know otherwise. After all, by profession Trump is a big-dealing real estate tycoon. As such, he ought to be very familiar with a world driven by market transactions. After all, most markets are driven by an endless series of individual buying and selling decisions.
However, with the benefit of hindsight, it is also apparent Trump never believed in the market system even in his own industry. He has been convinced all along that, whether owing to his beauty and intelligence, he could have his way with anything and everybody all along, at whatever price and conditions he was prepared to dictate.
To understand how out of character his performance is, imagine for a moment that Mr. Trump were back in his previous role as host of “The Apprentice” reality TV talk show host.
Hearing a contestant on the losing side of a deal complain about the lack of “fairness,” Trump would undoubtedly shout “Stop being such a whiner!,” adding: “You’re a loser, a real loser. I don’t want you on my team. You’re fired!”
And yet, Donald Trump has seized on “fairness” as the most serious issue of U.S. trade policy.
To make the world fit their needs and predilections, Mr. Trump and his key trade advisor, Peter Navarro, see the world as an endless series of bilateral relationships. What shines unmistakably through the Trump/Navarro worldview is less of a refusal than an inability to think in more complex terms – such as engaging in multilateral dealings.
Both men share a deep conviction that, given the size and the weight of the United States, it is far more advantageous for the U.S. government to deal with all other nations in a one-to-one, effectively hand-to-hand combat fashion.
That is what best allows the United States to throw its weight around and — as Trump sees it, in the presumed spirit of ”fairness” — always to end up getting his way, irrespective of the other side’s interests.
That way, Trump and Navarro believe they can prevent other nations, acting jointly, from sort of rolling up the table and either working up a deal against the United States or toward international agreements that have more teeth than “their” United States is willing to commit to.
Trump and Navarro’s preferred negotiating strategy matches brilliantly with the instincts and emotional needs of the larger Republican camp. Having turned ever more radically conservative, it is deeply suspicious of any and all international agreements.
What do these core features of future U.S. trade policy mean for the rest of the world?
The United States under Trump has positioned itself as a kind of schoolyard bully. It is intent on breaking the previous web of multilateralism into many separate bilateralisms.
What is truly astounding about all of this is that there is a global precedent for Trump’s approach to trade. After WWII, when the United States led the world in establishing a multilateral trade system, called the GATT back then, the Soviet Union pursued a decidedly different design.
It established the COMECON, the so-called Council for Mutual Economic Assistance. That was a deliberate misnomer.
At the core of COMECON then, and of Trump’s trade policy now, is a very hierarchically structured international economic system where the economic assets of all the member nations are arranged in cascade style to serve one purpose — to strengthen the interests of the hegemon that sat at the top of the pyramid, the Soviet Union.
Mr. Trump’s and Mr. Navarro’s ultimate vision is to turn the entire world into a resurrected COMECON, this time under the firm leadership of the United States.
Only a short while ago, anybody in the United States arguing that way would have been described as spewing out an irreparably leftist, anti-capitalist claptrap.
And yet, here we are.
So much for “fairness.”
***Stephan Richter is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Globalist, the daily online magazine on the global economy, politics and culture, which he founded and launched in January 2000.
He also is the President of The Globalist Research Center, the online thinktank — as well as the creator of The Globalist Quiz, a weekly feature exploring the global agenda in an innovative fashion that is syndicated to newspapers around the world.
Mr. Richter is a frequent guest on leading radio and television programs, including CNN, PBS Newshour, Germany’s ARD and ZDF and National Public Radio.
A sought after and thought-provoking keynote speaker at executive conferences and retreats, he has moderated more than 150 policy events during his time in Washington, D.C., featuring prime ministers, CEOs, Nobel laureates and heads of international organizations.
His articles and views have appeared in such publications as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Financial Times, Harvard Business Review, Fortune, Salon, Le Monde, Les Echos, Die Welt, Der Spiegel, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Die Zeit, Handelsblatt, Manager Magazin, Cicero, NZZ and Foreign Affairs.
For the past ten years, he was the presenter of the Marketplace Globalist Quiz, aired on public radio stations all across the United States as part of NPR’s Morning Report. From 2002-08, he was a monthly columnist for Les Echos, the leading financial daily in France. He was also the U.S. correspondent for Rheinischer Merkur from 1990-98, as well as a monthly columnist for CEO Magazine.
In addition, he has been a keynote speaker on geopolitical and geoeconomic issues and trends at major international conferences organized by asset managers, investment banks and public policy institutions in Europe, the United States and Asia.
Prior to starting The Globalist, Mr. Richter led a global strategic communications firm based in Washington, D.C., advising ministers and CEOs of governments, leading global banks and corporations, international organizations and foundations around the world.
In that capacity, he served as North American advisor to the German Economics Ministry and Vice Chancellor in the early 1990s, when he successfully shaped the “New Federal States” campaign, designed to create a dynamic brand image for the former Communist East Germany.
In the fall of 1990, at the request of the U.S. Senator Bill Bradley, he drafted the Sense of the U.S. Senate resolution calling for forgiveness of Poland’s Communist-era public debt. It proved a crucial step in the successful conclusion of the April 1991 Debt Agreement in the Paris Club.
For those activities, he was awarded the Cross of the Order of Merit by the President of Poland in June 2014, as part of the country’s celebrations for the 25th anniversary of the arrival of freedom.
Mr. Richter received his J.D. from the University of Bonn, Germany in 1984, was a Rotary Foundation Award recipient in 1980-81 and a Congressional Fellow of the American Political Science Association in 1986-87.
His 1992 book, Clinton: What Europe and the United States Can Expect, correctly forecast the Clinton Administration’s emphasis on fiscal consolidation in U.S. public accounts.
In 2013, he was the co-editor of the book, In Search of a Sustainable Future: Reflections on Economic Growth, Social Equity and Global Governance.