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Apology Tour d’horizon

Summary:
July 26, 2018 — American presidents are supposed to take America’s side when dealing with other countries.  (“My country, right or wrong.”)  When Barack Obama was (falsely) accused of starting his presidency with an “apology tour” of the Middle East, it was understood that apologizing to foreigners would have been a bad thing, if true.  Last week Donald Trump received a lot of criticism from both Democrats and Republicans for failing to take the side of his own intelligence services and law enforcement agencies when their findings ran counter to what his friend Vladimir Putin solemnly assured him to be the truth. Even though US presidents are not supposed to apologize for their country, there is nothing that says that professors can’t.  This column is an apology tour.  The tour visits

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July 26, 2018 — American presidents are supposed to take America’s side when dealing with other countries.  (“My country, right or wrong.”)  When Barack Obama was (falsely) accused of starting his presidency with an “apology tour” of the Middle East, it was understood that apologizing to foreigners would have been a bad thing, if true.  Last week Donald Trump received a lot of criticism from both Democrats and Republicans for failing to take the side of his own intelligence services and law enforcement agencies when their findings ran counter to what his friend Vladimir Putin solemnly assured him to be the truth.

Even though US presidents are not supposed to apologize for their country, there is nothing that says that professors can’t.  This column is an apology tour.  The tour visits countries in alphabetical order.

First: Dear Rest of World.  Presuming to speak on behalf of many of the Americans who pay attention to international affairs:  we are excruciatingly sorry for inflicting Mr. Trump on you.  We hope you will hold on to the view that America is better than this, that you will (like us) try to summon patience until this bizarre historical deviation passes (hopefully in 2020), and that when the time comes you will join with us in re-building a rule-based cooperative open world order.

Dear Africa: We apologize for Trump’s obscene remarks insulting your countries last January.

Dear Australia:  We apologize for that inaugural January 28, 2017, phone call with your Prime Minister, which included the now-familiar Trump combo of insults to immigrants, willful misunderstanding of the facts regarding  an American commitment and remark that he found it more pleasant to talk to Vladimir Putin.

Dear Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania):   We are sorry that President Trump’s wavering support for NATO has made you fear that the US might not honor its treaty commitment to come to your aid if Russia were to invade your territory.  But we would.

Dear Brazil:  Sorry about those steel tariffs.  Still, China is going to switch its imports of soybeans from the US and buy from you, so that may make up for it.

Dear Britain:  While visiting your country July 12, our President thoughtlessly undermined the political position of his host, PM Theresa May, and her efforts to preserve British trade with the EU despite Brexit.  Earlier he misrepresented and attacked the mayor of London, presumably judging that his religion (Muslim) outweighed the facts of what he had actually said.

Dear Canada:   Sorry that Trump (falsely) said that Canadians invaded the US and burnt down the White House in the War of 1812; that he still hasn’t learned what the bilateral trade balance is; and that he insulted PM Justin Trudeau (host of the G7 meeting that he rudely left early on June 9), calling him “very dishonest.” Trudeau apparently provoked the epithet by saying Canada would retaliate against Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum.  Trump imposed these tariffs supposedly on national security grounds, against our closest ally.

Dear Central America:  You are invisible to us… until a small number of desperate refugee families reach our border whereupon we, unbelievably, separate small children from their families and lock them all up.  How can we erase this stain?  We could help your tiny countries, if we tried, at far lower cost than the doomed efforts to bring peace and security to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Dear China: We are sorry for years of giving you mere piles of paper (Treasury bills) in exchange for all the neat merchandise you have been sending our way.  It’s not fair.  You were running a current account surplus of 10% of GDP in 2007.  Fortunately it then peaked and has lately been down to a mere 1.3% of GDP (partly because you let your currency appreciate, as we asked). So you are now getting real goods and services in exchange for your exports.

Dear European Union:  We are sorry that President Trump called you a foe and that he cheers on the forces trying to break up the EU.  Sorry for acting to undermine your ability to stand up to Putin.  And sorry for those steel and aluminum tariffs, and for any further tariffs on autos, etc.   Oh, and sorry for all those refugees we unleashed on you when we destabilized the Middle East in a deeply misguided reaction to September 11, 2001.  Apologies should go first to the refugees themselves, of course.

Dear France:  Your President Macron made an excellent effort to befriend our President while sticking to principle.  Sorry it did not get him anywhere and in particular that Trump subsequently reneged on the deal that has so far has kept Iran from building nuclear weapons.

Dear Germany:  Sorry that DT falsely claimed that his father was born in Germany and has repeatedly insulted Chancellor Angela Merkel (aka Leader of the Free World).  He also complains about German trade negotiators, apparently not realizing that this profession went out of existence when Germany joined the EU long ago.

Dear Iran:  We are sorry that Trump has abrogated the US participation in the 2015 nuclear deal and is now reimposing sanctions, notwithstanding that you have verifiably abided by the agreed terms.   Normally we try to keep our word.  [Not everything is Trump’s fault.  I am also sorry that the US worked to help overthrow your democratically elected president in 1953, helped Saddam Hussein in his invasion of your territory in the 1980s using chemical weapons, and shot down a civilian Iranian airliner in 1988.  On the other side, we did you the huge favor of overthrowing Saddam in 2003. Also we really wish you would stop supporting terrorism in the Mideast

Dear Iraq:  We are sorry that we took what was a tyrannical, but stable, political situation in your country and made it far worse by our 2003 invasion (which was an astounding non-sequitur response to the events of September 11, 2001 – initially supported by Trump and still defended by his current national security advisor).

Dear Ireland:  We are sorry that our President apparently believes that you are part of the UK and that you like him. We know you aren’t and don’t.

Dear Japan: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is one of many foreign leaders to learn that cozying up to Trump can at best buy his goodwill for the period of time when he is standing next to you, and is worth nothing thereafter.  In fact, Japan was the only major US ally that was not granted even a temporary exemption from Trump’s 25% steel tariff.  (Trump is mentally stuck in the 1980s, when Americans feared that the Japanese economic juggernaut was surpassing the US.)  Also, we are sorry that Trump apparently pays little attention to the issue of North Korea’s military ability to strike Japan and South Korea.

Dear Mexico:   What can I say?  We know that “criminals” and “rapists” are in fact far less common among the immigrants we get from Mexico and elsewhere than among domestically-born Americans.  We know that you are not going to pay to build a wall.  We know that re-negotiating NAFTA in a way that would satisfy Trump is not an option — particularly the sunset clause that would impose maximum uncertainty on businessmen by requiring periodic renewal.  (Though most trade is beneficial, we are sorry for the burden imposed on your society by our illegal cross-border exports of guns and demand for drugs.)

Dear Philippines, Russia, Turkey, Egypt, etc.:   We understand the historic attraction of a strong leader who claims to get things done even while cutting some corners.  But “strongman” tactics by your leaders do not help your countries in the long run.  We fear that Trump’s disdain for the rule of law helps give them an excuse for bad behavior of their own, from extra-judicial killings to failing economic policies to.

Dear South Korea:  We are sorry that Trump’s eagerness to match Kim Jong Un insult-for-insult last year (August-September 2017) ratcheted up the risk of a catastrophic war on the Korean peninsula.  That must have been scary.  Your President Moon Jae-In deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for skillfully ratcheting back down the conflict between the two school-yard bullies.  Unfortunately Trump didn’t consult you before announcing discontinuation of joint military exercises, and got nothing from Kim Jong Un in exchange for it and for legitimizing his country at the Singapore meeting this June.

Dear Sweden:  We are sorry that the Trumps used to claim to be Swedish and that on February 19, 2017, he fabricated a terrorist attack “last night in Sweden.”

Dear Ukraine:  We are really sorry that Trump’s historical memory may not go back as far as 2014, when Russia invaded your territory.  Or if it does, he says it’s okay because many Ukrainians speak Russian.  Under this logic the British invasion of Washington in the War of 1812 would have been justified after all.  And sorry that Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort, now in jail, worked for the pro-Russian side in Ukraine.

Dear Venezuela:   We are sorry that Trump is prolonging the life of your awful government by threatening invasion and giving the leaders an excuse on which to blame their disastrous economy (including hyperinflation).

I apologize also to the countries I left out of this apology tour.  Trump’s tearing down of the rule-based truth-based mutually-beneficial pro-trade world order hurts everyone.  Please keep our seat warm, at the WTO, UN, NATO, G7, TPP, etc.

appeared at Project Syndicate. 

Jeffrey Frankel
Jeffrey Frankel, a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, previously served as a member of President Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers. He directs the Program in International Finance and Macroeconomics at the US National Bureau of Economic Research, where he is a member of the Business Cycle Dating Committee, the official US arbiter of recession and recovery.

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