Fail­ure the only op­tion

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - EDITORIAL PAGE - Paul Krug­man Paul Krug­man, who won the 2008 No­bel Prize in eco­nomics, writes for the New York Times.

So Don­ald Trump went to a NATO sum­mit, in­sulted our al­lies, then made the ab­surd de­mand not just that they in­crease mil­i­tary spend­ing—which they should—but that they raise it to 4 per­cent of GDP, much higher than the bloated mil­i­tary spend­ing in his own bud­get. He then claimed, falsely, to have won ma­jor con­ces­sions and gra­ciously de­clared that it is “presently un­nec­es­sary” to con­sider quit­ting the al­liance.

Was there any­thing our al­lies could have done that would have mol­li­fied him? The an­swer surely is no. For Trump, dis­rupt­ing NATO doesn’t seem to be a means to an end; it’s an end in it­self.

Does all of this sound fa­mil­iar? It’s ba­si­cally the same as the story of the es­ca­lat­ing trade war. While Trump rants about other coun­tries’ un­fair trade prac­tices—a com­plaint that has some va­lid­ity for China, al­though vir­tu­ally none for Canada or the Euro­pean Union—he hasn’t made any co­her­ent de­mands. That is, he has given no in­di­ca­tion what any of the coun­tries hit by his tar­iffs could do to sat­isfy him, leav­ing them with no op­tion ex­cept re­tal­i­a­tion.

So he isn’t act­ing like some­one threat­en­ing a trade war to win con­ces­sions; he’s act­ing like some­one who just wants a trade war. Sure enough, he’s re­port­edly threat­en­ing to pull out of the World Trade Or­ga­ni­za­tion, the same way he’s sug­gest­ing the U.S. might pull out of NATO.

It’s all of a piece. What­ever claims Trump makes about other coun­tries’ mis­be­hav­ior, what­ever de­mands he makes on a par­tic­u­lar day, they’re all in ev­i­dent bad faith. Mr. Art of the Deal doesn’t want any deals. He just wants to tear things down.

The in­sti­tu­tions Trump is try­ing to de­stroy were all cre­ated un­der U.S. lead­er­ship in the af­ter­math of World War II. Those were years of epic states­man­ship—the years of the Ber­lin air­lift and the Mar­shall Plan, in which Amer­ica showed its true great­ness. For hav­ing won the war, we chose not to be­have like a con­queror but in­stead to build the foun­da­tions of last­ing peace.

Thus the Gen­eral Agree­ment on Tar­iffs and Trade, signed in 1947—at a time of over­whelm­ing U.S. eco­nomic dom­i­nance—didn’t seek a priv­i­leged po­si­tion for Amer­i­can prod­ucts, but in­stead cre­ated rules of the game to pro­mote pros­per­ity around the world. Sim­i­larly NATO, cre­ated in 1949—at a time of over­whelm­ing U.S. mil­i­tary dom­i­nance—didn’t seek to lock in our hege­mony. In­stead, it cre­ated a sys­tem of mu­tual re­spon­si­bil­ity that en­cour­aged our al­lies, in­clud­ing our de­feated for­mer en­e­mies, to see them­selves as equals in pre­serv­ing our mu­tual se­cu­rity.

One way to say this is that Amer­ica tried to cre­ate an in­ter­na­tional sys­tem re­flect­ing our own ideals, one that sub­jected pow­er­ful coun­tries—our­selves in­cluded—to rule of law while pro­tect­ing weaker na­tions from bul­lies. Small coun­tries can and do win WTO cases against big coun­tries; small mem­bers of NATO re­ceive the same un­con­di­tional se­cu­rity guar­an­tees as ma­jor pow­ers.

And what Trump is try­ing to do is un­der­mine that sys­tem, mak­ing bul­ly­ing great again.

What’s his mo­ti­va­tion? Part of the an­swer is that any­thing that weak­ens the West­ern al­liance helps Vladimir Putin; if Trump isn’t lit­er­ally a Rus­sian agent, he cer­tainly be­haves like one on every pos­si­ble oc­ca­sion.

Beyond that, Trump ob­vi­ously dis­likes any­thing that smacks of rule of law ap­ply­ing equally to the weak and the strong. At home, he par­dons crim­i­nal big­ots while rip­ping chil­dren away from their par­ents. In in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions, he con­sis­tently praises bru­tal strong­men while heap­ing scorn on demo­cratic lead­ers.

So of course he hates the in­ter­na­tional in­sti­tu­tions cre­ated by an in­fin­itely wiser gen­er­a­tion of U.S. states­men, who un­der­stood that it was in Amer­ica’s own in­ter­est to use its power with re­spect and re­straint, to bind it­self by rules to win the world’s trust.

He may com­plain that other coun­tries are cheat­ing and tak­ing ad­van­tage of Amer­ica, that they’re im­pos­ing un­fair tar­iffs or fail­ing to pay their share of de­fense costs. But those claims are made in bad faith—they’re ex­cuses, not real griev­ances. He doesn’t want to fix these in­sti­tu­tions. He wants to de­stroy them.

Will any­thing put a check on Trump’s de­struc­tive in­stincts? You might have thought that Congress would place some lim­its, that there were at least some re­spon­si­ble, pa­tri­otic Re­pub­li­can law­mak­ers left. But there aren’t.

Al­ter­na­tively, you might have thought that big busi­ness, which is deeply in­vested—lit­er­ally—in the ex­ist­ing world or­der, would protest ef­fec­tively. So far, how­ever, it has been ut­terly in­ef­fec­tual. And while talk of the trade war some­times causes the stock mar­ket to wob­ble, as far as I can tell, in­vestors still aren’t tak­ing this se­ri­ously. They imag­ine that Trump will blus­ter and tweet for a while, then ac­cept some cos­metic pol­icy changes and call it a win.

But that kind of be­nign out­come looks in­creas­ingly un­likely, be­cause Trump won’t take yes for an an­swer. He doesn’t want ne­go­ti­a­tions with our al­lies and trad­ing part­ners to suc­ceed; he wants them to fail. And by the time ev­ery­one re­al­izes this, the dam­age may be ir­re­versible.

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