President-elect Donald Trump has made a point of shaking things up. In domestic policy, this taste for disorder is risky. In foreign policy, it could be calamitous.
Trump isn’t yet president, so it’s early to be drawing conclusions. But concern is warranted. Trump rejects the status quo in America’s relations with the rest of the world, and seems to see global stability as a kind of national surrender.
An early indication of Trump’s approach to international relations is his intervention on Taiwan. The striking thing isn’t that he abandoned, before even taking office, the delicate balance that governs U.S.-China relations with respect to Taiwan. More discomfiting is what he said next. In effect, he asked: Why should the U.S. accommodate China’s wishes on this subject if China refuses to deal fairly with the U.S. on trade?
In short, Trump is proposing to connect trade policy to an issue of great-power politics over which China may be willing to go to war. Stir things up to get better deals. (The implication that the U.S. will have nothing to say on Taiwan so long as Beijing gives Trump a trade deal he likes is disturbing in its own right.) This kind of thinking leads nowhere good.
The global order designed and built by the U.S. after 1945 has served American and global interests better than anyone dared hope. A widening zone of democracy, avoidance of direct superpower conflicts, the fall of communism, and a liberal system of global trade have hugely benefited the U.S. and an expanding sphere of its partners. This remarkable achievement is not a state of nature. The postwar order was deliberately constructed, often against the odds, and must now be carefully maintained.
One way by which this stability has been preserved is by separating points of contention and limiting the extent of possible quarrels. If every dispute between the U.S. and another country implicates every realm of policy, maintaining stability becomes that much harder. Disagreements are apt to escalate, conceivably to the point of military conflict. That’s why it makes sense, for instance, to keep trade policy separate from arguments over borders or sovereignty.
This isn’t to say that all is well with the world, or that stability is everything. Trump owes his victory, at least in part, to his ability to exploit a gnawing sense among many Americans that the system isn’t working for them, and he has an obligation to address their concerns. And sometimes the price of stability is too high. For instance, the problem posed by Iran and its nuclear ambitions has been shelved rather than solved.
Relations with China, on the other hand, should on the whole be scored a success. It’s gone capitalist, and now (unlike Russia) has a strong material interest in global order. Maybe that interest isn’t yet compelling or overriding for the ruling Communist Party — but given time, it will be.
Note as well that Trump’s attacks on China’s trade practices are ill-advised substantively as well as strategically. China’s currency is no longer undervalued. Despite some recent backsliding, its government has taken strides toward liberalizing its trade, its currency system and its capital markets. China is a member of the World Trade Organization and bound by its rules — as is the United States.
Advancing American prosperity demands a new commitment to U.S. competitiveness. Trump is not without ideas on the subject: His plans for tax reform and investment in infrastructure, for example, should be judged with an open mind. But the necessary condition for any of that to work is global stability.
There is a difference between recalibrating the international order and upending it. If Trump wants to make America great again, he will need to strengthen, not undermine, America’s greatest achievement.
To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at firstname.lastname@example.org.