Donald Trump could bring a welcome pragmatism to American foreign policy and something we have not seen in some time—prospects for genuine success.
He has yet to assemble an organized team of advisers. Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions is the only figure counseling Trump well known to the public and from the elite circles of foreign policy experts. His campaign website lacks a comprehensive statement of goals for foreign relations and the use of American power.
However, Trump’s proposals on China and illegal immigration — which closely parallel Mitt Romney’s 2008 platform — and positions toward Russia and the Middle East add up to a more coherent realism than has characterized the generally frustrated policies of President Obama.
President Clinton agreed to China’s membership in the World Trade Organization in exchange for an agreement to open its markets to U.S. exports and investment.
That proved a terrible deal. Beijing still maintains much higher tariffs on U.S. products than are imposed on Chinese products here, subsidizes manufacturing by endlessly rolling over loans on money-losing state enterprises, and suppresses the value of the yuan to keep its exports cheap and American goods expensive in China.
American consumers enjoy artificially-inexpensive coffee makers at Wal-Mart but at a terrible hidden cost. Free trade destroys jobs when it admits additional imports but it’s supposed to create new jobs through the sale of more American goods and services abroad. With China that exchange has hardly balanced.
During Obama’s tenure, the trade deficit with China has increased by about $100 billion. And it costs American workers some 800 thousand jobs directly—and more than 1.2 million jobs counting in those lost from those workers not spending lost wages domestically.
Trump’s proposed tariff on imports to force China to revalue its currency and renegotiate its trade practices is hardly reckless. Similar measures have been proposed by liberal New York Times columnist Paul Krugman.
Illegal immigration at our southern border has vexed American presidents for generations, but the Mexican government has generally refused to cooperate in stemming that flow.
It is not acceptable to say in polite circles, even though absolutely true, that Mexico has one of the most corrupt governments among members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development—the club of western industrialized countries.
The weight of graft keeps Mexico from providing citizens with adequate social services, clean drinking water and air, and decent wages driving them north in search of a better life. In turn, many Mexicans working here send sizeable remittances to relatives back home and that helps prop up a wanton regime.
As an advocate of NAFTA when proposed, like others, I hoped that a more open commercial relationship with the United States would propel reforms but that has failed.
Trump can’t force Mexico City to build a wall along the border but by taxing remittances, Washington can pressure it to start cleaning up its filthy regime and genuinely cooperate in border control.
President Putin is asserting Russian power in Eastern Europe and the Middle East by among other things supporting Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad
American options for dealing with Russia and ISIS are limited by twin realities. Led by Germany, Europeans are unwilling to put ground troops into harm’s way to help defend Eastern European freedom or combat ISIS. The American public, without such a European commitment, will surely not countenance American expeditionary forces to push Russia out of the Ukraine or to destroy ISIS.
The next best option is one chosen by President Truman when faced by Stalin at the end of World War II—accept a deal with Russia—and no matter how distasteful, and keep Assad as a counterweight to ISIS.
Dealing with the world as we find it, not as we wish it would be, is hardly the inclination of a fool.
It’s the stuff of successful statecraft.
Peter Morici served as Chief Economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission from 1993 to 1995. He is an economist and professor at the Smith School of Business, University of Maryland, and a widely published columnist. He is the five time winner of the MarketWatch best forecaster award. Follow him on Twitter @PMorici1.