Opinion | Trump’s ‘Art of the Deal’ Foreign Policy
HAMBURG, Germany — A couple of years ago I took a vacation to Sicily. I had parked my car in a public lot when a local guy approached me to ask for money. I pointed to a sign that read “free parking,” so why did he think he could demand anything of me? He said that of course I was not obliged to pay him, but if I wanted to make sure my car was undamaged upon my return, I’d better be friends with him and give him a couple of euro.
We had a deal.
I thought back to this episode when I watched the Trump impeachment hearings last week. To European eyes, what is on display there is more than just a controversy over whether Donald Trump abused his presidential powers. Rather, it looks like the defining battle between two ideas of America: America as a partner and America as a bully. The bigger question hanging over the entire impeachment question is whether a majority of Americans believe that coercing a country like Ukraine into cooperation for the sake of the Republican Party is acceptable foreign policy.
From everything we know, Mr. Trump put President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine in a damned-if-you-do damned-if-you-don’t situation: Either you deliver political ammunition against the Democrats by publicly announcing investigations against the son of Joe Biden, or I will freeze our military assistance to you. To a country at war with Russia, this choice basically meant: become a pawn in my political campaign, or risk serious damage.
Only a slim majority of Americans endorse the proceedings — which means that for tens of millions of Americans, Donald Trump did exactly what he is accused of doing, and they’re O.K. with it. Democrats believe it was an abuse of power; everyone else, it seems, believes President Trump was just trying to do a deal.
That view is not surprising. Since the end of the Cold War, America has gained little from the liberal world order on which it spent more dollars, blood and lives than any other nation. Free trade and democracy? They came back to haunt America’s industry when China and its state-subsidized manufacturers outcompeted everyone in the World Trade Organization, without opening its own markets.
A free and united Europe? The continent that America protected and supported for 70 years has profited nicely from integrating low-wage economies into the eurozone, which enabled cheap exports.
A rules-based international order? While the European Union would be happy to include Ukraine, a swing state between liberalism and authoritarianism, into its economic realm, the bloc does little to help defend its neighbor from Russia’s overwhelming military force. Instead, it’s up to the United States to deliver the anti-tank missiles. Bad deal, indeed.
And of course, such voters have a point. There are plenty of reasons America should demand more equitable burden sharing and reforms to international rule books, starting with the World Trade Organization.
But that’s no excuse for dumping the fundamentals of American leadership in favor of a more transactional, debased form of nation-state influence peddling. The old principles (even if they have not always been honored) would still be worth applying, especially the idea that partnership — as opposed to bullying for personal gain — creates trust, a trust that creates further partnership, which sets in motion a virtuous circle of ever greater mutual respect and gain that is, ultimately, to everyone’s benefit.
Listening to Ambassador Bill Taylor at the hearings, a nonpartisan career diplomat last stationed in Kyiv, one of his principled statements seemed to have almost fallen out of time: “If we believe that nations get to decide on their own economic, political and security alliances, we must support Ukraine in its fight against its bullying neighbor.”
In other words, building a level playing field surely comes at a price for the one who provides the machinery. But it will pay off. Short-term costs can create long-term gains. Wealth is created by non-zero-sum exchanges, as economists say.
Maybe the loss of precisely this belief is what lies at the core of Trumpism: Why care about trust when you can exert coercive power? There is no foreign policy principle involved — unless it is that the president, as the sole representative of America abroad, should be able to do whatever he wants. That is why, whatever you think about whether Mr. Trump abused his constitutional powers at home, he certainly violated a core principle of American leadership abroad.
Mr. Trump’s “Art of the Deal” approach to the world is the opposite of what made America great. It replaces trust with suspicion and turns partners into skeptics. It is a global version of the Sicilian world order I encountered in that parking lot — everyone, even the smallest con, using whatever they have to advance their interests. Is that what America wants? If not, it needs to put more trust in what used to be its greatest quality: creating trust.
Jochen Bittner is a co-head of the debate section for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a contributing opinion writer.
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