American Foreign Policy: It’s Worse Than It Looks

James Fallows
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

This past week I argued that the current U.S. approach to China mattered enormously, and was being grievously mishandled. The set-up for the argument was a ranking of which U.S. relationships were “most” by a variety of criteria, which the’s editor Adrienne LaFrance brilliantly summarized this way:

Via Twitter.

Now, two reader reactions I’d like to quote. First, from the author (and veteran of congressional politics) Mike Lofgren, who says that I’m wrong to worry more about what’s happening with China than about the less sexy-sounding but more profound damage the United States is doing to its long-standing alliances in the rest of the Americas and with Europe.

Lofgren writes:

The US relationship with China is extremely important, and is being horribly fumbled—as is every other global relationship—but I think the relative novelty of China as a near peer (a country which, when I was growing up, might have been on the dark side of the moon, with Mao's Great Leap Forward reducing peasants to eating tree bark) has led pundits to overstate its singularity.

The old, boring EU is still the most important relationship, for the same reason people don't recognize it as such: it's been there for so long, and has been so deeply embedded, that we've taken it for granted. The EU has a greater GDP than China and a greater aggregate military budget; and more to the point, the deep cultural, political, and military ties make it a close cousin.

I have no doubt that the trade war with China, however stupid and dangerous it is, is not as significant as the unprecedented—at least in the post 1945 world—breach with Europe that Trump has precipitated, one that by no coincidence perfectly dovetails with the desires of the Kremlin.

Make no mistake about it: Trump's dangerous moves could very well bring down NATO, fracture the EU, and leave the US alone against two hostile powers (China and Russia), while our biggest force multiplier and a regional bloc which shared liberal democratic values with us, has been irrevocably alienated and possibly destroyed.

On reflection, I agree. The damage of today’s preening and careening foreign policy is even worse than it looks.

Similarly, I argued a few days ago that Trump’s new war-of-choice trade showdowns with Mexico, Canada, most of Europe, and other countries are self-defeating, pointless, impulsively irrational, and [choose your other synonym for crazy-bad]. Robert Turnbull, a reader in Canada, says that’s not the half of it:

In the article on Trump's recently-imposed steel and aluminum tariffs against Canada, Mexico and the E.U., [you] make the right technical arguments for why the tariffs are misguided (an understatement). But while the tariffs will cause significant damage to the economies of both the U.S. and the target countries, I believe the more lasting and pervasive damage will be the loss of trust in the U.S. among its closest allies.

Canada is by far the largest exporter of steel and aluminum to the U.S. The American defence and auto industries are utterly dependent on reasonably-priced Canadian metals. The overall trade deficit/surplus between Canada and the U.S. is generally balanced, with the U.S. currently holding a slight surplus. As you pointed out, some Chinese steel has been transshipped to the U.S. through Canada. But Prime Minister Trudeau undertook to the President in March to restrict this and succeeded in putting the necessary control measures in place with Canadian steel makers.  

So why would Trump choose to hit Canada with 25% tariffs on steel and aluminum? Ostensibly, because they pose a threat to U.S. "national security". The best words that the ever-polite Trudeau and Foreign Minister Freeland could come up with in response to this were "absurd" and "insulting." Insulting because there is no closer security relationship between two countries in the world. The U.S. depends on Canadian metals to supply its defence industries because it can't meet those demands itself. And after Canadian and American troops fought and died beside each other in two world wars, Korea and Afghanistan, the two country's defence establishments are the most integrated in the world.

In announcing Canada's retaliatory tariffs, Trudeau was careful to point out that they are intended to send a message to the U.S. administration, not to hurt the American people. Of course, this is almost as laughable as the Trump administration's "national security" justification: the retaliatory tariffs are tailored to hurt American workers the most in those states that were instrumental in electing Trump.

Trudeau's careful distinction between the U.S. administration and its people does, however, reflect the visceral response of most Canadians to the current U.S. administration. As much as most Canadians revile Trump and the Trumpists, they continue to cling to the belief that this nightmare can't represent the views of most Americans.

Like many Canadians, I read, watch and listen to mainstream American media (including the Atlantic) and talk to my American friends and family members for reassurance that the America that has lead the world and generally maintained order for 75 years is still out there—it's just been temporarily hijacked. But this belief becomes harder and harder to sustain as the assaults by Trump pile up. I suspect that the feeling is much the same in those other countries that were, until recently, America's closest allies.   

I’m afraid that he’s right, too.


Update A reader in the U.S. chimes in to support these previous views:

I would argue that our relationships with Canada, followed closely by Mexico, are by far our most important and strategic relationships. The truth is that (thanks to being surrounded by oceans) we really could have neutral and minimal, maybe even mildly unfriendly, relations with the rest of the world and still be able to maintain our peace and security, our freedoms, and a reasonable level of economic well-being. . . IF we have good relations with Canada and Mexico.

With our land borders secured, we have the oceans for defense with strategic depth, provided that we invest enough in our navy and air force. With Canada and Mexico as good trading partners, we have enough resources available in North America to sustain an admirable standard of living. Any involvement that we have with the rest of the world outside of North America builds on this foundation and should be seen as optional icing on the cake. Nice to do if we can, but we could live without it if absolutely necessary.

To damage either of these primary relationships, though - even just a little bit - is sheer folly of the first magnitude, and is the strongest and clearest evidence yet that the current US administration, from the top on down, are utterly ignorant and don't have the slightest idea what they are doing.