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Trump the Reluctant Multilateralist

Summary:
FLORENCE – Donald Trump did not assume the US presidency as a committed multilateralist. On that, partisans of all political persuasions can agree. Among his most controversial campaign statements were some suggesting that NATO was obsolete, a position that bodes ill for his attitude to other multilateral organizations and alliances. Last week, however, Trump stepped back, reassuring an audience at US Central Command in Tampa, Florida (the headquarters for US forces that operate in the Middle East). “We strongly support NATO,” he declared, explaining that his “issue” with the Alliance was one of full and proper financial contributions from all members, not fundamental security arrangements. This more nuanced view presumably reflects a new appreciation, whether born of security briefings or the sobering fact of actually occupying the Oval Office, that the world is a dangerous place. Even a president committed to putting “America first” now seems to recognize that a framework through which countries can pursue shared goals is not a bad thing. The question now is whether what is true for NATO is also true for the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, and the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision. Trump’s record on the campaign trail and Twitter is not heartening.

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FLORENCE – Donald Trump did not assume the US presidency as a committed multilateralist. On that, partisans of all political persuasions can agree. Among his most controversial campaign statements were some suggesting that NATO was obsolete, a position that bodes ill for his attitude to other multilateral organizations and alliances.

Last week, however, Trump stepped back, reassuring an audience at US Central Command in Tampa, Florida (the headquarters for US forces that operate in the Middle East). “We strongly support NATO,” he declared, explaining that his “issue” with the Alliance was one of full and proper financial contributions from all members, not fundamental security arrangements.

This more nuanced view presumably reflects a new appreciation, whether born of security briefings or the sobering fact of actually occupying the Oval Office, that the world is a dangerous place. Even a president committed to putting “America first” now seems to recognize that a framework through which countries can pursue shared goals is not a bad thing.

The question now is whether what is true for NATO is also true for the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, and the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision. Trump’s record on the campaign trail and Twitter is not heartening. Back in 2012, he tweeted criticism of the World Bank for “tying poverty to ‘climate change’” (his quotation marks). “And we wonder why international organizations are ineffective,” he complained.

Likewise, last July, he mooted the possibility that the United States might withdraw from the WTO if it constrained his ability to impose tariffs. And he vowed repeatedly during the presidential campaign to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. But the evolution of Trump’s position on NATO suggests that he may yet see merit to working through these organizations as he comes to recognize that the world economy, too, is a dangerous place.

Following the election, Trump acknowledged having an open mind on the Paris climate agreement. His position seemed less to deny the existence of global warming than to insist that policies mitigating climate change not impose an unreasonable burden on American companies.

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Barry Eichengreen
Barry Eichengreen is Professor of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley; Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions at the University of Cambridge; and a former senior policy adviser at the International Monetary Fund.

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