- - Sunday, February 5, 2017


Donald Trump as a real estate dealmaker thrived on chaos — creating and then exploiting it to achieve his goals. Now as president, Mr. Trump is upsetting allies and disrupting international security and economic arrangements to deliver on his campaign promises to make Americans safer and more prosperous.

Since the end of World II, presidents from both parties carefully cultivated NATO and other defense alliances in the Pacific and Middle East, and built a network of multilateral and regional trade and investment agreements, to promote democracy, human rights and free-market capitalism.

From the very beginning through the present day, most U.S. allies have been unwilling to make the same sacrifices as the United States to defend the frontiers of freedom and build a strong western economy where everyone may prosper.

In the early decades, it was well within U.S. means to devote more resources to security and economic challenges but over the years America’s two biggest allies, Germany and Japan, pursued selfish economic policies based on exports exceeding imports.

Simply, if those trading giants have trade surpluses, the United States and other nations must have trade deficits — and this mightily penalizes investment, R&D and economic growth in the United States and many other economies.

Similarly, efforts to encourage China to evolve political and economic institutions more sympathetic toward western values only exacerbated American economic woes. Instead of becoming more democratic and free-market oriented, it has matured into a menacing authoritarian and mercantilist state that offers to other Asian nations its political and economic models as an alternative to American prescriptions.

Today, broad swaths of America’s industrial heartland are impoverished thanks to U.S. presidents appeasing mercantilism, and the United States, now accounting for a much smaller share of the global economy, simply cannot carry the load — U.S. security commitments to NATO and in the Pacific have become financially untenable.

President Obama from the outset of his presidency recognized the limits of American resources and sought to circumscribe U.S. military engagement to direct threats to U.S. security, encourage allies to do more and maximize regional contributions — for example, his diplomacy urged Germany, Japan and others to commit more to defense, and he relied on Iraqi and insurgent forces to combat ISIS and Syrian dictator Bashar Assad.

Similarly, through diplomacy Mr. Obama sought to open foreign markets in Asia to rev up U.S. exports and growth.

By and large Mr. Obama failed.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, seized the Crimea and other territory, we heard the usual laments from Germany that its laws prevented the kinds of far-reaching economic sanctions the United States endorsed. In the end, Berlin relented and agreed to meaningful but hardly crippling sanctions on Russia, the Crimea was lost, and Ukraine was left to defend against other territorial incursions with limited western materiel support.

The Germans, Japanese and others still spend too little and expect American service members to stand in harm’s way to defend their freedoms. Russia is extending influence by exploiting the increasing void left by the United States in the Middle East. China is seizing sovereignty over vast areas in the South China Sea, and key U.S. allies, the Philippines and Malaysia, are pivoting in its direction.

Americans and Western Europeans have been subjected to terrible acts of terrorism by Islamic extremists, and Mr. Obama failed to open foreign markets, accelerate economic growth and create enough decent paying jobs.

The latter elected Donald Trump president, and he is taking a much harder line with friend and foe alike, save Russia.

By warning Europe to do more for their own defense or risk losing American protection, seeking a deal with Russia on power sharing in Europe and the Middle East, and threatening China with huge tariffs and other economic sanctions, Donald Trump is posing existential threats to NATO and the WTO, which are foundational arrangements of the western alliance.

All this may be necessary to finally shake loose change and win concessions vital to American interests, but neither Mr. Trump nor his political appointees and White House strategists have told us much about what the brave new world order to follow should look like.

Without goals, brinkmanship can easily serve destructive purposes — international security and economic arrangements do not function well in chaos.

Mr. Trump’s reckless fits of policy could easily take much of the world, and America, into dystopia.

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

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