“The point is that you can’t be too greedy.” The author of this saying, President Trump, is brazenly monetizing international relations. He demands more money from the NATO members for common defense. He urges Mexico to pay for the wall. He is slashing financial assistance to allies (except Israel). He vies to renegotiate trade agreements. He proposes to impose tariffs on Mexican and Canadian goods in violation of international trade laws. He campaigned in the 2016 presidential election to declare China as a currency manipulator. Much like a Las Vegas tycoon, Trump views the world as a big casino where the U.S. is losing money. Trump fancies rigging the international game for the U.S. to come out as a tireless winner.
Trump’s money obsessions add nothing innovative to international relations. For centuries, money has been a dominant factor in relations among states. Occupations, invasions, war booty, indentured labor, and slavery were the common instruments for wealth aggregation. Now, nations marshal affluence through trade, investments, remittances, immigration, and migrant workers. Nations that have little to sell in international markets are poor. Nations with natural resources are vulnerable to subjugation. Nations raise huge armies and some develop weapons of mass destruction to commit as well as deter aggression. Predatory nations are armed to the teeth. Most nations are terrified. Fear rules the humankind.
By making money calls, Trump aggravates the undercurrents of self-interest permeating international politics. In many parts of the world, nations are terrorizing each other, seizing land and resources, seeking unfair advantage, spilling blood, and doggedly retarding the models of civilization that poets, philosophers, environmentalists, and ethicists romanticize. Trump is not an idealist. He is a coarse money merchant with little interest in the welfare of global civilization. Trump speaks the language of intimidation to defend and extort money. Millions of Americans detest Trump the man and Trump the money maniac.
Superpower Action Choices
Superpowers have action choices. A superpower can act as a greedy nation determined to aggregate wealth through exploitation, intimidation, threats, invasion, and occupation. It can also act as a benevolent world leader imbued with generosity, idealism, and wellbeing of all the peoples of the world. Sadly, most superpowers, including the British and Spanish colonial empires, have committed immense crimes against humanity, including massacres, theft of land, destruction of occupied cultures, and transfer of wealth from abroad to national exchequers.
As a superpower, the U.S. has been inconstant as it swings from one choice to the other. Reconstructing a war-ravaged Europe, financially supporting international organizations for peace and security, opening its borders for the poor and the tired of the world, and giving money for the prevention and elimination of epidemics in different parts of the world, these and other munificent acts make the United States a special superpower, one that endears the hearts of the world and inspires other nations to do good as a purposeful policy preference.
Trump contemplates the other choice, much like Spanish conquistadors and British imperial viceroys known for their treachery and gold-grabbing. Trump’s affection for President Andrew Jackson, who stole millions of acres of land from Native Americans, reveals his predatory mindset. Trump’s campaign utterings that the U.S. “should have kept the Iraqi oil” reinforce his deep-seated hunger to loot assets that belong to others. If Trump is allowed freely to shape international relations after his own mind, the U.S. will become a superpower that the peoples of the world would hate from the bottoms of their hearts.
The World is No Pushover
What Trump misses to understand is the inherent will of other nations and communities to resist the dynamics of overreaching. If Trump opts for monetized national interests, other nations are unlikely to play dead. History demonstrates that Germany can be pushed only too far before it reacts with irrational might. So is japan. Vietnam proved that a small nation resolved to defend itself can successfully fight a weighty war machine. Mexico refuses to succumb to Trump’s monetized pressure, as does Iran, China, Venezuela, and Russia.
Of course, a superpower can determine the dynamics of world affairs. Nations tend to imitate superpowers, at least in dealing with superpowers. If Trump transforms the U.S. into a money-aggregating hegemon, the world is bound to resist and frustrate any such efforts. Turning selfish is not an act of genius for persons or nations. It’s easy. The U.S. has no special privilege to be selfish. Yes, the U.S. may pursue its monetized self-interest with the use of force, including the weapons of mass destruction, but even this option is a loser rather than a winner. North Korea trapped tightly in economic sanctions, and facing starvation of its people, may be condemned as a crazy country but crazy countries do emerge in a world where superpowers terminate fair play in favor of dog-eat-dog imperative.
Ali Khan is the author of A Portfolio Theory of Foreign Affairs (2011).