- - Monday, December 12, 2016

Donald Trump’s recent actions, such as his conversation with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and statements about China’s currency, may disturb foreign policy experts, but those mark a long overdue reset in U.S. international policy.

Since the end of World War II, the United States has promoted the freer movement of goods, capital and people — for example, through NAFTA, integrating China into the World Trade Organization and broadening the European Union — and democracy as the surest path to peace, prosperity and security.

In considerable measure those approaches worked. Wartime allies and adversaries from Poland to Japan are now bound together in a durable Western community of interests, and resorting to military confrontation to settle differences is simply unthinkable.

However, Brexit, the failure of the recent Italian government and election of Mr. Trump illustrate many voters have grown weary of globalization’s failed promises and oppressive burdens.

Since the introduction of the euro, southern European nations have seen unemployment — especially youth unemployment — soar to chronically unacceptable levels. In the United States, liberalized trade with China has slashed economic growth, left Rust Belt communities devastated by factory closures and helped create an army of indolent men — 7 million between 25 and 54 who show no interest in gainful employment.

On both continents, poorly controlled immigration and terrorism have fed off each other, and many voters have concluded what elites simply won’t admit. The West can’t spread free markets and democratic values everywhere, and the failure to recognize the limits of this policy have devastating consequences.

In the Middle East, religious radicalism makes western blind tolerance of alien cultures downright threatening to the safety of ordinary citizens walking the streets or attending public events from Brussels to San Bernardino. It threatens to dilute national cultures and makes social cohesion so necessary for a tolerant civic interaction much less possible.

In China, a juggernaut has emerged that simply has no intention of conforming to the free-market norms of the global trading system or western democracy. It rigs its currency, subsidizes exports and compels foreign investors to give away their technology. As importantly, it is perfecting new means to monitor and control its citizens’ behavior. It uses its newfound wealth to remilitarize the Pacific and threatens its neighbors and, as importantly, it offers its model of autocratic state-directed capitalism as an alternative to what it sees as America’s decadent democratic economic and social order.

President Obama’s idealistic policies have enabled China’s more aggressive actions. For example, his failure to adequately counter its mercantilist trade and investment policies, his passive posture as Beijing imposed economic pressure on Taiwan for electing a government committed to continued democracy and built military installations in the South China Sea, and his scolding of Philippines leaders on vexing internal security challenges as they and leaders of Malaysia pivoted toward Beijing.

Seen in this context, Donald Trump’s continued insistence on the primacy of enforcing our borders and aggressively screening those who settle in America, renegotiating trade agreements to ensure they benefit the American economy and not some ethereal notion of global communalism, and his recent conversations with Taiwan’s President Tsai and Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte are not the compulsive machinations of a man without a governing ideology. Rather, those are merely a practical recognition that the principles undergirding American foreign policy in recent decades no longer serve us well.

America can’t simply persuade China to be democratic or respect western norms in international commerce. The best course for U.S. policy is to take strong assertive steps against actions that adversely affect American economic and security interests and those of its allies.

America can’t compel Middle Eastern societies to be more tolerant of the West or effectively coax Mexico to clean up the corruption that drives so many of its citizens to migrate north illegally. However, Washington can screen aggressively who is allowed to enter America from places hostile to our values and better enforce our southern border.

The foreign policy establishments of the Democratic and Republican parties Mr. Trump defeated in the primaries and general election may be aghast at his attitude and actions. His governing doctrine is not that of a great thinker but profoundly similar to other great men in our history.

America has to deal with the world as it finds it, not as philosophers think it should be.

• Peter Morici is an economist and business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist.

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