No matter how tempting it is to write off President Trump’s G-7 antics as the capricious acting out of a big, petulant baby, that won’t do the world any good as long as he runs the U.S. Like it or not, Trump is a world leader trying to position himself between the points of a triangle: established rules and alliances, selfish U.S. interests and his own personality traits.
It may appear that he’s tossed the rules and alliances out the window - at least that’s how it’s seen in Europe and now also in Canada. Trump has pulled the U.S. out of one international agreement after another, hit allies with high import quotas and teased the flabbergasted leaders of the of the other six G-7 leaders with outlandish proposals like readmitting Russia to the club or scrapping all tariffs altogether. The only reason to air these proposals, knowing they won’t be accepted, is to demonstrate a defiant disregard for the world order as we know it, a disregard that makes serious people suggest Russian President Vladimir Putin has something on Trump and is making him act in this disruptive way.
Trump, however, hasn’t quite rejected the rules. His tariffs are designed to withstand an attack in the World Trade Organization because they’re ostensibly dictated by national security, something the WTO allows. It’s a legal ploy, but it could actually work. He’s gone back on agreements that weren’t ratified by Congress because he’s had the right to do so. And his persistent demands that North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies spend 2 percent of their economic output on defense, are meant to uphold rules which others are not keen to follow despite agreeing to them. In any rules-based setup, some rules are more important than others at different moments; it’s just that Europe doesn’t like Trump’s priorities.
One could also argue that Trump hasn’t so much undermined U.S. alliances as acted to bring into the open the allies’ dependence on the U.S. and remind them they shouldn’t take U.S. support for granted. This could end up reshaping the relationships as more transparently pragmatic and transactional ones than they are today. Trump’s bet is that the allies, especially Europeans, will opt to rally around the U.S. anyway because they have no other viable options. Trump is taking a risk to assert an unabashed U.S. hegemony, based more on U.S. might and pressure than on persuasion and consensus.
As Henry Kissinger wrote in his 2014 book, “World Order,”
“The essence of such upheavals is that while they are usually underpinned by force, their overriding thrust is psychological. Those under assault are challenged to defend not only their territory but the basic assumptions of their way of life, their moral right to exist and to act in a manner that, until the challenge, had been treated as beyond question. The natural inclination, particularly of leaders from pluralistic societies, is to engage with the representatives of the revolution, expecting that what they really want is to negotiate in good faith on the premises of the existing order and arrive at a reasonable solution. “
That’s what U.S. allies have been trying to do with Trump; so far, they’ve refused to believe that the disruption, usually the province of ambitious outsiders, is coming from the very center of the international order on which they’ve come to depend. They appear to believe they can negotiate better outcomes or wait Trump out, but Trump rejects both these scenarios, telling them, in effect, to submit or fight.
And then there are the personal likes and dislikes of Donald Trump the man. He clearly resents what he must see as German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s intellectual condescension, and he treats long-winded, cocky French President Emmanuel Macron as something of a comic figure. His personal stylistic sympathies appear to lie with leaders who exert absolute power: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Putin. He’s fascinated by their ability to make instant decisions; he thinks he can do business with them, rather than with Western leaders always looking over their shoulder to their electorates and coming at him with all sorts of slow, fussy scenarios and complex proposals.
There’s not much for Trump’s partners to like about his approach to triangulation. He’s unpleasant to deal with, not interested in consensus, often impossible to pin down. But, unlike previous U.S. leaders, he provides some clear answers to questions Kissinger asked of the U.S. in his book: What does the U.S. want to prevent or to achieve - alone if necessary or only as part of an alliance? What will the U.S. do or not do when pushed by its allies?
Trump’s answers are simple. The U.S. will seek an economic advantage no matter who’s at the other side of the table, it will stretch the rules as much as it can to get it, and no kind of pressure will divert it from its pursuit of the advantage. These answers, in turn, lead to a question the G-6 leaders and all U.S. allies need to answer: Do they want to be led on these terms or do they have the guts to present an alternative? Leaving this question unanswered is an option, but only if one believes the U.S. will not re-elect Trump or ever elect another Trump.
Leonid Bershidsky covers European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti.