Understanding Trump’s Worldview

17 January 2017, 1633 EST

Over the weekend, Donald Trump gave an interview with Michael Gove of The Times of London and Kai Diekmann, a former editor of the German newspaper Bild. (The interview is behind a paywall, but you can register for free for access to two articles a week from The Times.)

There has been ample coverage in the press (see here, here), focusing on Trump’s ambivalence to NATO (“obsolete” “very important”), hostility to the European Union (“Personally, I don’t think it matters much for the United States”), and equal regard for Angela Merkel and Putin (“Well, I start off trusting both — but let’s see how long that lasts. It may not last long at all.”)

A friend on Facebook said she was struggling with explaining Trump’s foreign policy strategy. A number of people weighed in with suppositions about his business relationships in Russia, whether or not he is subject to blackmail from compromising information.

Leaving that aside, even in the absence of some specific connection between Trump and Russia, what might explain his coziness to Russia, his disdain for NATO, the EU, traditional allies? Or, put a little differently, since first-level analysis of individuals and agency is in vogue again, how can we understand Donald Trump’s worldview?

Tom Wright’s Politico piece from a year ago January 2016 is seen as one of the most accurate and helpful depictions of Trump’s worldview, and his forthcoming book will anchor Trump’s rise in the wider geo-strategic context. Wright focuses on Trump’s mercantilism and perception that the U.S. has gotten a raw deal from the liberal order and that alliances are sapping the country of resources. On Russia, Wright attributes Trump’s views to his general appreciation for authoritarians.

I think that’s generally right, but another idea woke me up at 2am last night and led me to some bleary-eyed tweets. Here is what I said.

Trump’s Core Principle: Economic Competitors Are Not Our Friends

Trump’s core concerns are about trade and manufacturing competition. Europe, China, Japan, and Mexico are competitors, hence are not our friends. We don’t compete with Russia on trade so it is a natural ally in Trump’s way of thinking. Since Trump mainly cares about trade competition over jobs and manufacturing, it is relatively easy for him to see Russia as a potential ally. In the security sphere, Trump might care about ISIS, but it doesn’t seem like he thinks we need traditional allies for that mission.

Europe: NATO is Obsolete and the EU is a Vehicle for Germany

Allies in the security sphere are for Trump burdens who we have to pay for. In his view, the wider benefits of the liberal order are tiny, and he ignores evidence of local burden-sharing and focuses on scofflaws in NATO and Asia  who aren’t willing to pay for their own defense. From the weekend interview, he focuses on those who are not paying their share. (To be fair, President Obama expressed concern for burden-sharing as well, but the tone was different). Here, Trump is more dismissive of NATO:

Britain is paying. There’s five countries that are paying what they’re supposed to. Five. It’s not much, from 22.

I think this sense that Europe is a trade competitor helps explain Trump’s willingness to threaten German companies with trade sanctions if they try to make products, particularly in Mexico, and export them to the United States. From the interview:

I would tell BMW if they think they’re gonna build a plant in Mexico and sell cars into the US without a 35 per cent tax, it’s not gonna happen, it’s not gonna happen — so if they want to build cars for the world I would say wish them luck — they can build cars for the US but they’ll be paying a 35 per cent tax on every car that comes into the country.

Similarly, his comments on the need for fair exchange with Germany are illustrative:

I mean Germany is a great country, great manufacturing country — you go down Fifth Avenue everybody has a Mercedes-Benz in front of their building, right — the fact is that it’s been very unfair to the US, it’s not a two-way street. How many Chevrolets do you see in Germany? Maybe none — not too many — how many — you don’t see anything over there — it’s a one-way street — it’s gotta be a two-way street — I want it to be fair but it’s gotta be a two-way street and that’s why we’re losing almost $800, think of it, $800 billion a year in trade so that will stop.

Trump sees the European Union as a “vehicle for Germany” to outcompete the United States and that its vitality is not important to the United States:

Personally, I don’t think it matters much for the United States. I never thought it mattered. Look, the EU was formed, partially, to beat the United States on trade, OK? So, I don’t really care whether it’s separate or together, to me it doesn’t matter.

Japan: We are Getting Ripped Off

During the campaign, Trump made similar comments about Japan, as if his understanding of the country is frozen in the 1980s Michael Crichton-era depiction of Rising Sun. In an interview to Oprah in 1988, this is what Trump said about Japan:

We let Japan come and dump everything in our markets. It’s not free trade. If you go ever to Japan and try to sell something, forget about it, it’s almost impossible. They don’t have laws against it, they just make it impossible. They come over here they sell their cars, their VCRs, they knock the hell out of our companies.”

Trump’s views have hardly evolved. In a March 2016 Republican debate, Trump invoked Japan again as an unfair competitor:

As far as domestic policy and trade which is killing our country, he said free trade and I believe in free trade also. But, if you look at China, and you look Japan, and if you look at Mexico, both at the border, by the way, where they’re killing us.

Again, defending Japan in Trump’s worldview is the sucker’s payoff. During the campaign, Trump said about the alliance with Japan:

“If we’re attacked, Japan doesn’t have to do anything. They can sit home and watch Sony television, OK?”….

“They have to pay. Because this isn’t 40 years ago,”

“It’s got to be a two-way street.”

China: We Are Getting Ripped Off Again

I think Trump’s hyper-emphasis on trade competition leads Trump in to both elevation of the potential for disputes with China but also helps understand why he might  write off Taiwan and disputes over the South China Sea if China gives Trump a better deal on trade. This helps understand why Trump was so quick to challenge China’s “One China” policy but also how quickly he might abandon Taiwan if his other objectives are met.

Some have seen remarks by Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson and others as an indication that Trump is elevating the strategic threat of China and that explains Trump’s willingness to embrace Russia. However, I wonder how deeply committed Trump is to an anti-China policy in terms of a strategic threat. I wouldn’t be surprised if Trump would be happy to let China have a sphere of influence in Asia if they delivered a better deal on trade.

In any event, we shall soon have a better sense of how important institutions are in constraining President Trump or whether such first-level analysis of his worldview becomes increasingly critical to anticipating what he will do.