A Populist Surge Is Pulling Three U.S. Allies Into Political Crises

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Leaders in America’s top 3 European Allies face Crisis

  1. Britain: Teresa May tries to manage a Brexit vote motivated by anti-immigration
  2. France: Emmanuel Macron faces rioting in the streets over a carbon tax
  3. Germany: Angela Merkel has to step down as leader amid backlash over middle east immigration

The Hollowing Out of the G20

Since helping to mitigate the global financial crisis, the G20 has degenerated from a platform for action to a forum for discussion. In the age of Donald Trump, it could sink even further, becoming a vehicle for legitimating illegal behavior, from Russia’s aggression in Ukraine to Saudi Arabia’s murder of a journalist.

.. Now, instead of jostling for pictures of Trump and Xi, the world’s media will be dissecting interactions between MBS, accused of ordering the brutal torture and murder of the US-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Those between Russian President Vladimir Putin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel – which would have been uncomfortable even without the recent attack on Ukraine – will also be heavily scrutinized.
.. None of this is the point of a G20 summit. What used to be an effective forum of global governance has now degenerated into a kind of Kabuki theater – a faithful reflection of the extent to which the global order has lost its way.
.. After the global financial crisis erupted in 2008, the G20 acted as an international crisis committee, mitigating the disaster by injecting liquidity into markets worldwide. The effectiveness of the G20’s 2008 and 2009 summits raised hopes that, at a time of rapid change, this emerging platform, comprising economies accounting for 85% of world output, could serve as a global fire brigade. Not bound by procedural rules or legal strictures, the G20 could respond quickly when needed. There was even talk of the G20 intervening in a wider range of areas, potentially even eclipsing the United Nations Security Council.

Trump’s trip to Europe was a complete disaster, and not because he acted like a boorish bully

On his recent visit to Europe, he managed to convey once again his contempt for America’s European allies, and to demonstrate that he places more value on his own personal comfort than on the sacrifices that US soldiers have made in the past.

The trip itself cost millions of taxpayer dollars, yet Trump chose to skip a key ceremony honoring US war dead at Aisne-Marne American Cemetery because it was raining.

The White House offered up a cloud of unconvincing excuses for Trump’s absence, but other world leaders were not deterred by the fear of a few raindrops, and neither were past presidents ObamaClinton, Bush, or Kennedy back in their day.

By choosing to stay warm and dry in his hotel room while other world leaders acknowledged the heroism of those who fought and died for freedom, Trump gave the concept of “American exceptionalism” a whole new meaning.

Overall, Trump seemed intent on proving that while the obligations of being president might force him to go on such trips, he doesn’t have to behave himself while he’s there.

For example, Trump is correct to accuse China of engaging in a variety of predatory trade practices and of failing to live up to its World Trade Organization commitments. He is also right when he complains that Europe has neglected its own defenses and relies too much on American protection (though he still seems to think NATO is a club with membership dues)..

He is hardly the first US official to criticize European defense preparations but being unoriginal doesn’t make it wrong.

Trump is also correct in his belief that Europe, Russia, and the United States would be better off if the divisions that presently divide them could be bridged or at least alleviated.

It would be better for Europe if Russia withdrew from Ukraine, stopped trying to intimidate the Baltic states, and stopped murdering former spies in foreign countries.

It would be good for Russia if Western sanctions were lifted and it no longer had to worry about open-ended NATO expansion. And it would be good for the United States if Russia could be pulled away from its increasingly close partnership with China.

For that matter, Trump wasn’t wrong to see North Korea’s nuclear and long-range missile programs as a serious problem that called for creative diplomacy.

The real problem is that Trump has no idea what to do about any of these issues, and he seems incapable of formulating a coherent approach to any of them. To the extent that he does have an actual policy toward Europe, for example, it is the exact opposite of what the United States ought to be doing.

Trump’s broad approach to Europe is one of “divide and rule.” He’s called the European Union a “foe” of the United States, and he has backed a number of the political forces that are now roiling the Continent and threatening the EU’s long-term future.

He endorsed Brexit, expressed his support for Marine Le Pen in France, and thinks well of illiberal leaders like Viktor Orban of Hungary and Andrzej Duda of Poland. Why? Because he thinks dividing Europe into contending national states will allow the larger and more powerful United States to bargain with each European state separately rather than face all of them together, and thus secure better deals for itself.

This approach might be termed “Neanderthal realism.” Playing “divide and rule” is a good idea when dealing with real enemies, but it makes no sense to sow division among countries with whom one has generally friendly relations and close economic ties, and when their collective support might be needed in other contexts.

This approach also runs counter to Trump’s stated desire to reduce US security commitments to Europe and to get Europe to take on greater responsibility for its own defense.

If you really want the United States to get out of the business of protecting Europe, you should also want Europe to be tranquil, capable, prosperous, and united after the United States withdraws. Why? So that Washington doesn’t have to worry about developments there and can focus its attention on other regions, such as Asia.

A Europe roiled by xenophobia, resurgent hyper-nationalism, and persistent internal wrangling wouldn’t be to America’s advantage; it would be just another problem area we’d have to keep an eye on.

Nor would a divided Europe be of much use in addressing any of the other problems on America’s foreign-policy agenda.

Why doesn’t Trump see this? Possibly because he is reflexively relying on the same tactics that brought him to the White House.

It has worked tolerably well here in the United States, because a lot of Americans are still angry or fearful and Trump is both shameless and adept at fueling those emotions. This same instinct leads him to behave abominably abroad: Insulting British Prime Minister Theresa May and London Mayor Sadiq Khan, deriding Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada as “Very dishonest & weak” or derisively tossing Starburst candies to German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a meeting of G-7 leaders.

.. The problem, of course, is that the boorish behavior and conflict-stoking policies tend to backfire on the world stage.

.. Trump’s bullying bluster didn’t win big trade concessions from Canada, Mexico, or South Korea; the shiny “new” trade deals Trump negotiated with them were nearly identical to the old arrangements and in some ways inferior to them.

And given how Trump has treated America’s allies, why would May, Merkel, Macron, Abe, or Trudeau do him (or the United States) any favors? The declining US image abroad compounds this problem, as foreign leaders know their own popularity will suffer if they help Trump in any way.

.. Trump’s personal conduct is not even the biggest problem. Arguably, an even bigger issue is the strategic incoherence of his entire transactional approach. His overarching objective is to try to screw the best possible deal out of every interaction, but this approach instead makes it more difficult for the United States to achieve its most important foreign-policy goals.

.. Threatening trade wars with allies in Europe or Canada makes little sense from a purely economic perspective, for example, and it has made it harder for the United States to address the more serious challenge of China’s trade policies.

If Trump were as worried about China’s trade infractions as he claims to be, he would have lined up Europe, Japan, and other major economic actors and confronted China with a united front. Similarly, pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal and threatening allies with secondary sanctions not only raises doubts about America’s judgment (because the deal was working, and the Europeans know it); it just fuels further resentment at America’s shortsighted bullying.

.. It is increasingly clear that Trump was never the brilliant businessman he claimed to be; he got most of his wealth from his father using various shady tax dodges, and the Trump Organization may have been heavily dependent on illegal activities like money laundering.

.. We should focus less on his personal antics and inadequacies and focus more on his inability to formulate effective policies, even on issues where his instincts are in fact mostly correct.

.. Sadly, the 45th US president possesses a world-class ability to get things wrong, even when he’s right.

The Global Impact of a Chinese Recession

Most economic forecasts suggest that a recession in China will hurt everyone, but that the pain would be more regionally confined than would be the case for a deep recession in the United States. Unfortunately, that may be wishful thinking.

CAMBRIDGE – When China finally has its inevitable growth recession – which will almost surely be amplified by a financial crisis, given the economy’s massive leverage – how will the rest of world be affected? With US President Donald Trump’s trade war hitting China just as growth was already slowing, this is no idle question.

.. First, the effect on international capital markets could be vastly greater than Chinese capital market linkages would suggest. However jittery global investors may be about prospects for profit growth, a hit to Chinese growth would make things a lot worse. Although it is true that the US is still by far the biggest importer of final consumption goods (a large share of Chinese manufacturing imports are intermediate goods that end up being embodied in exports to the US and Europe), foreign firms nonetheless still enjoy huge profits on sales in China.

Investors today are also concerned about rising interest rates, which not only put a damper on consumption and investment, but also reduce the market value of companies (particularly tech firms) whose valuations depend heavily on profit growth far in the future. A Chinese recession could again make the situation worse.

.. High Asian saving rates over the past two decades have been a significant factor in the low overall level of real (inflation-adjusted) interest rates in both the United States and Europe, thanks to the fact that underdeveloped Asian capital markets simply cannot constructively absorb the surplus savings.

.. instead of leading to lower global real interest rates, a Chinese slowdown that spreads across Asia could paradoxically lead to higher interest rates elsewhere – especially if a second Asian financial crisis leads to a sharp draw-down of central bank reserves. Thus, for global capital markets, a Chinese recession could easily prove to be a double whammy.

.. a significant rise in global interest rates would be much worse. Eurozone leaders, particularly German Chancellor Angela Merkel, get less credit than they deserve for holding together the politically and economically fragile single currency against steep economic and political odds. But their task would have been well-nigh impossible but for the ultra-low global interest rates

.. Today, however, debt levels have risen significantly, and a sharp rise in global real interest rates would almost certainly extend today’s brewing crises beyond the handful of countries (including Argentina and Turkey) that have already been hit.

.. Nor is the US immune. For the moment, the US can finance its trillion-dollar deficits at relatively low cost. But the relatively short-term duration of its borrowing – under four years if one integrates the Treasury and Federal Reserve balance sheets – means that a rise in interest rates would soon cause debt service to crowd out needed expenditures in other areas. At the same time, Trump’s trade war also threatens to undermine the US economy’s dynamism.

.. Its somewhat arbitrary and politically driven nature makes it at least as harmful to US growth as the regulations Trump has so proudly eliminated. Those who assumed that Trump’s stance on trade was mostly campaign bluster should be worried.

.. A recession in China, amplified by a financial crisis, would constitute the third leg of the debt supercycle that began in the US in 2008 and moved to Europe in 2010. Up to this point, the Chinese authorities have done a remarkable job in postponing the inevitable slowdown. Unfortunately, when the downturn arrives, the world is likely to discover that China’s economy matters even more than most people thought.