President Donald Trump wants to cancel the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty between Russia and America. He also wants to leave the Universal Postal Union, which safeguards the rules of global mail traffic. Many expect him to blow up the World Trade Organization today or tomorrow. The man is going on full speed.
It is tempting to conclude once again that Trump is a bully who overthrows our multilateral order without any concern for others. But let us, before we overflow with self-pity, look at why Trump denounces certain treaties. Sometimes, there actually is a pattern. That pattern is China.
Since 1874, the Universal Postal Union has coordinated global mail and package tariffs. In 1969, poorer countries received lower tariffs as development aid. China was among them. The situation is now radically different. But those low tariffs are still there. The Chinese bring packages to America for a quarter of what it costs the Americans to get them from LA to New York. Sixty percent of all packages destined for America are delivered by the Chinese – clothing, electronics, everything. Amazon and UPS lament this. The American government has been protesting it for years. In 2016, the UPU tariffs were marginally adjusted. More was not to be. Trump now concludes that every new system is better than the old.
The INF treaty dates back to 1987. Russia has been violating it for years. Former President Barack Obama already addressed this. But Trump's complaint is not only about what the Russians are doing. It is also that the treaty is limited to Russia, America, and a few former Soviet states, and that it does not include China. Last year, the American fleet commander in the Pacific, Harry Harris, said that China is developing the world's "largest and most diverse missile force." Some 95 percent of it would fall under the INF treaty if this applied to China. China is militarizing the area between the Pacific and the Indian Ocean, where America was militarily sovereign for a long time. A clash is not unthinkable – a clash between a country that needs to control itself like a Loony Tune because of a nonfunctioning treaty, and one that can indulge itself.
Then there is NAFTA, the trade agreement with Mexico and Canada that Trump hastily adjusted. In The New York Times, Roberta Jacobson, former ambassador to Mexico, outlined how happy she is to be rid of the Trump chaos after her resignation in May. The tweeting. The swearing at Mexico. Washington, which gave her zero information, even after she was summoned by the displeased Mexican president. But, Jacobson writes, “much” of the old NAFTA is "intact." The main difference is that the new NAFTA contains clauses that make it harder for Canada and Mexico to close deals with countries that are not market economies. State-owned companies may no longer profit from low tariffs. Monetary manipulation is forbidden. These are barely disguised references to one country: China.
Finally: the World Trade Organization, paralyzed by the trade war between America and China. Former WTO chief Pascal Lamy said recently at a conference in Florence: "Whether you like Trump or not, and I do not like him, his merit is that he puts reforms on the WTO agenda."*
At the beginning of October, Vice President Mike Pence gave an unprecedented fierce speech in Washington, which built on Trump's speech at the United Nations in September. "Beijing is pursuing a comprehensive and coordinated campaign to undermine support for the president, our agenda, and our nation’s most cherished ideals," he said.
Is Trump infantile, dangerous and incompetent? Maybe. But he is not completely unpredictable. If the Europeans are smart, they will stop mewing, follow the China trail and throw in their full weight as a trade block before the WTO goes down as well. That would not hurt trans-Atlantic relations either.
*Editor’s note: Although accurately translated, this quoted remark, if made in English, could not be independently verified.