The best way to understand President Donald Trump’s foreign-policy successes — or quasi-successes — is to imagine him as the heir to a family fortune who thinks he is building a business even as he is, in reality, slowly squandering his inheritance.
It’s a stretch, I know.
But stay with me — because, unlike with his private business dealings, the legacy Trump is frittering away belongs to us all.
Take his recent dust-up with Mexico. For the purposes of this argument, it doesn’t matter whether you think Mexico responded to Trump’s tariff threats with genuine, substantial concessions or warmed-over restatements of past agreements.
What is indisputable is that the Mexican foreign minister rushed to Washington to placate the president and avert his threat. The Mexicans did not, as you might have expected, point out that tariffs have nothing to do with immigration, that Mexico isn’t responsible for Guatemala or that this is not how friends treat friends. They didn’t tell Trump to go take a hike.
Why not? Last week, Trump offered his own analysis: “Tariffs are a beautiful thing when you’re the piggy bank,” he said, “when you have all the money.”
And he’s right, to a point. In part because of the United States’ economic might, allies and competitors alike have acceded to much of Trump’s bullying. European nations are reluctant to trade with Iran, though they dislike U.S. sanctions. NATO countries have increased their military spending, though they resent his haranguing. Chinese officials at least came to the negotiating table, though they hate his threats.
But the reality is that the U.S. no longer has “all the money,” as it did — or seemed to — in the middle of the last century, when Trump’s worldview jelled, never to un-jell. Its dominance then allowed the U.S. to set the rules and run the show.
Today, the U.S. accounts for far less of the world economy, but — and this is where the carefully nurtured legacy comes in — its influence, at least until now, has not fallen accordingly.
The U.S. dollar is still the world’s currency. The World Trade Organization still functions according to rules that the U.S. helped generate. The chief of the World Bank is always an American. Japan still operates under a constitution the U.S. wrote that forswears, forever, any military aggression. Even as China and then North Korea developed nuclear weapons, Japan refrained, trusting its security to the United States’ nuclear umbrella.
It’s not that the U.S. has always gotten its way, of course; it didn’t, even back in 1960.
But that’s the point, in a way. Previous presidents were smart enough not to insist on getting their own way every single time. As a result, nations were generally willing to live with norms and structures that kept the U.S. in the lead; they trusted the U.S. not to exploit their deference to squeeze them for every last dollar (or euro, or yen). They believed the U.S. would consider its own national interest but also global stability and not take advantage of others at every possible turn.
Now, Trump is squeezing, and, not surprisingly, he is getting results, or at least the appearance of results. Many of the structures that enable U.S. power and leave allies vulnerable can’t be altered overnight. Trump, therefore, can imagine himself a brilliant negotiator.
But while they placate and play for time, the nations of the world also are learning a lesson. Japan is beginning to rethink its security posture so that it won’t have to depend on the United States. As my colleague Fareed Zakaria noted last week, Europe is developing new payment mechanisms to avoid reliance on the dollar. French President Emmanuel Macron has called for a “true, European army” that would minimize the importance of NATO — and, with it, the United States.
These changes will take time. Whether they improve the world will be debated; I have my doubts, but certainly many people would welcome seeing the Chinese yuan challenge the U.S. dollar for pre-eminence, and some might think the world a more stable place if Japan and Saudi Arabia developed their own nuclear arsenals.
What won’t be debatable is the diminution of U.S. influence. Once these norms and structures are changed — and they will change, especially if the Trump era lasts through 2024 — there will be no going back.
By 2050, seven-eighths of the world economy will be produced outside the U.S., and 24 of every 25 people in the world will not be Americans. If a U.S. president then tries to exert influence, foreign leaders may feel free to tell him or her to go take a hike.
At that point, Americans may think back to the Trump presidency, and it won’t be with nostalgia.