Donald Trump, the reluctant multilateralist
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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 the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (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 the 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 (IMF), the World Bank, the World Trade Organization (WTO), 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 US 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 that he had 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.
The way to limit the competitive burden on US producers is, of course, by ensuring that other countries also require their companies to take steps to mitigate climate change, thereby keeping the playing field level. And this is precisely what the Paris agreement is about.
The same can be said of the Basel committee’s standards for capital adequacy. Holding more capital is not costless for US banks, as advisers like Gary Cohn, formerly of Goldman Sachs and now the head of Trump’s national economic council, presumably tell the president morning, noon, and night. Levelling the playing field in this area means requiring foreign banks also to hold more capital, which is precisely the point of the Basel process.
Trump may similarly come to appreciate the advantages of working through the IMF when a crisis erupts in Venezuela, or in Mexico as a result of his own policies.
In 1995, the US treasury extended financial assistance to Mexico through the Exchange Stabilization Fund. In 2008, the Federal Reserve provided Brazil with a $30 billion swap line to help it navigate the global financial crisis.
But imagine the outrage with which Trump’s supporters would greet a “taxpayer bailout” of a foreign country or Mexican officials’ anger over having to secure assistance from the same Trump administration responsible for their country’s ills. Both sides would surely prefer working through the IMF.
Trump can’t be pleased that the Barack Obama administration rushed to push through the reappointment of its chosen World Bank president, Jim Yong Kim. But he clearly recognizes the benefits of development aid.
While he has said that the US should “stop sending foreign aid to countries that hate us,” he has also observed that failure to help poor countries can foment instability.
This would appear to be an area where Trump will favour bilateral action, which would enable him to assuage his conservative critics by insisting that no US funds go towards family planning, while taking credit for any and all assistance.
At the same time, minimizing the role of the US in the World Bank would create a vacuum to be filled by China, Trump’s bête noire, both in that institution and through the activities of the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
The real test of Trump’s stance on multilateralism will be how he approaches the WTO. Persuading the US Congress to agree on corporate and personal income-tax reform, a $1 trillion infrastructure initiative, and a replacement for Obama’s signature healthcare reform won’t be easy, to say the least. Doing so will require patience, which is not Trump’s strong suit. This suggests that he will feel pressured to do what he can unilaterally.
One thing he can do unilaterally is slap duties on imports, potentially in violation of WTO rules. We’ll soon find out whether those rules will deter him.
Barry Eichengreen is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Cambridge.