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What Trump Got Right: A Liberal World Order of Meaningless Niceties

Europe has suddenly realized that China's rhetoric about international cooperation was just hot air. You don't say.

US President Donald Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron and Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel attend a work session in the Casino of Biarritz on August 26, 2019, on the third and last day of the annual G7 Summit attended by the leaders of the world's seven richest democracies, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States. (IAN LANGSDON/AFP via Getty Images)

In politics, it’s never too early in the day for a shot and a chaser. First the hard stuff, from a New York Times article about the 2018 Davos conference in Switzerland:

President Trump used the World Economic Forum meeting to woo investors and business leaders by reassuring them that “America first does not mean America alone.” But it was clear in Davos, Switzerland, this past week that geopolitical momentum lay with Beijing, not Washington. …

National leaders seemed to vie with one another in Davos in calling for closer cooperation with China. …Chinese officials used Davos as another opportunity to speak out against protectionism, in what analysts have described as an effort to take advantage of global concerns about the Trump administration and its warnings that it would pursue a more aggressive trade policy.

And now, from last week, the chaser:

In country after country, China is facing rising anger over its policies and its behavior — from trade to human rights — a major setback on a continent that Beijing has viewed as a more pragmatic, and thus more willing, partner to provide ballast against sharply deteriorating relations with the United States. …

European frustrations with Chinese policies have been mounting, but they crystallized this year in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. China’s obfuscation of its early missteps in containing the coronavirus and its failure at “mask diplomacy” soured public sentiment in several countries, especially the Netherlands and Spain, where protective gear and other supplies that were purchased, not donated, were found to be defective.

You don’t say.

Beijing’s standing in Europe has been plummeting for other reasons, too, including its clampdown on Hong Kong and Tibet and its concentration camps for Uighur Muslims. Yet what’s most striking is just how foolhardy the optimism about China should have seemed even in 2018. Beijing has been feted at various chateau-bound, foie gras-fueled international conferences for years, touting its Belt and Road Initiative and defending globalization—even as it’s also gamed the trade system for its own national benefit. It’s called for frictionless commerce between nations—even as it’s maintained tariffs on numerous manufactured goods.

And therein lies a major bug in the so-called liberal international order: its vast expanse of platitudes and empty overtures. Consider, for example, that one of the chief requirements to sit at the Western democracies adult table is a signature on the Paris climate accords, whose actual emissions reduction targets are routinely missed and ignored. Consider, too, all the fraternal rhetoric about the NATO alliance, which exists at the pleasure of the American military and whose minimal defense spending metrics European nations have barely even tried to meet. It’s all air. China understood this and knew it could get away with saying one thing and doing another. Donald Trump understood this and decided to call it out for what it was.

I’m no fan of Trump’s foreign policy in practice, nor even of his antagonizing needed allies like Germany. But he’s done a fine job of exposing certain internationalist inconvenient truths. It isn’t that nations shouldn’t sit down, talk to each other, strengthen friendships; it’s that they shouldn’t prize feel-good gestures over reality.

about the author

Matt Purple is a senior editor at The American Conservative.

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