U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Jonathan Lovelady

Dismantling The “Rules-based International Order”

Some weeks ago I read a brilliant New York Times Magazine essay on Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis, the retired Marine General tasked with, as the essayist put it, holding the line in President Donald Trump’s “War Cabinet.” I’ll admit, I’m a sucker for stories about great leaders in general, and generals in specific (Patton is still one of my favorite films of all time), and this piece delivered in spades, both delving into Mattis’ background in the United States Marine Corps and into his role in the President’s inner circle.

Side note – this piece isn’t really a political post. It’s not about Rs or Ds, but rather about the big picture of U.S. foreign policy, most especially with regard to trade. If your reaction to this post is stridently political, please reflect on that before you write me something inflammatory on Facebook.

Back to the NYT profile of Secretary Mattis… One of the passages I found most striking was this excerpt, describing a July 2017 briefing of the President and others on his team, including would-be diplomat son-in-law Jared Kushner (emphasis mine):

About 20 people attended the meeting on July 20, including five cabinet secretaries, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other top advisers, including Kushner, I was told by one person who attended. Mattis was clearly in charge, and as the meeting began, he stood in front of two huge screens that showed color representations of NATO, capital markets and various trade deals to which the United States is a signatory. “The greatest gift the greatest generation left us was the rules-based postwar international order,” Mattis said. He went on to outline the military side of our alliance structures and was followed by Tillerson; Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin; and Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic adviser. Trump listened in silence for a whole hour. When he finally spoke up, the attendee told me, his first words were, “This is exactly what I don’t want.” He went on to repeat many of the complaints that had become familiar during his campaign: the Europeans are deadbeats, our allies are taking advantage of us, we’re paying for everyone else. A heated discussion broke out, with Bannon facing off against Tillerson and Mnuchin over the nuclear deal with Iran.

Ours is a "government of laws, not of men." ~John AdamsAs a 2016 U.N. white paper explained, the rulesbased international order “can generally be described as a shared commitment by all countries to conduct their activities in accordance with agreed rules that evolve over time, such as international law, regional security arrangements, trade agreements, immigration protocols, and cultural arrangements.”

As former U.S. Ambassador John B. Emerson explained at the 2015 Berlin Security Conference, the importance of that rules-based international order has grown considerably over the past half-century.

“During the 70 years since the end of World War II; the 60 years since the western part of a divided Germany entered NATO; and the 25 years since the reunification of Germany, the transatlantic alliance was made strong by a diplomacy that balanced both interests and principles,” Emerson said. “It was built on the understanding that a rules- and values-based international order was mutually beneficial for all, and it was made possible because of our shared interests, shared history, and shared sacrifices.”

Emerson noted that for many of us who came of age after the Fall of the Berlin Wall,  iconic events such as the President Reagan’s call for the Soviets to “Tear down this Wall” are ancient history for them: “Their generation is confronted with new challenges,” the Ambassador explained, “and young people in particular are skeptical of the ability of large institutions to solve them.”

I thought back to Mattis’ comment about the “greatest gift” earlier this week, when news surfaced that the Administration is toying with the notion of the United States withdrawing from the World Trade Organization. When I read that President Trump had directed his legislative team to draft a bill that would, in essence see the U.S. walk away from the WTO in hopes of negotiating directly with each of the 164 WTO member nations, Mattis’ quote about the rules-based international order exploded in my mind.

As reported by Axios, on the proposed WTO bill:

Spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said, “It is no secret that POTUS has had frustrations with the unfair imbalance of tariffs that put the U.S. at a disadvantage. He has asked his team to develop ideas to remedy this situation and create incentives for countries to lower their tariffs. The current system gives the U.S. no leverage and other countries no incentive.”

But Walters signaled that we shouldn’t take this bill as anything like a done deal. “The only way this would be news is if this were actual legislation that the administration was preparing to rollout, but it’s not,” she said. “Principals have not even met to review any text of legislation on reciprocal trade.”

Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross walked things back a little Tuesday, saying that discussion of leaving the WTO was “a little premature,” but reiterating the Administration’s overall position that somehow the U.S. is getting a raw deal when it comes to global trade, and that the WTO in specific “needs some reforms.”

In reality, such a bill would almost certainly be dead on arrival in Congress. Even so, the notion that the ostensible leader of the free world would consider abandoning the WTO is fairly chilling… Sadly, that impulse is not an isolated example by any stretch:

…and this is to say nothing of the ongoing situation in North Korea, which is either the greatest achievement toward “peace in our time” since V-J Day or the precipice of Nuclear Holocaust, depending on which side of the political internet you inhabit.

All of this relative instability has consequences. As veteran policy wonks told The Economist last month:

Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, and a Republican, thinks people already view America differently. “The United States has knocked itself off the pedestal,” he says. The effects are likely to be “lasting and corrosive”. “We have yet to come to terms with the full extent of the damage he’s doing to America’s role in the world,” says Michael Fullilove, who heads the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney. “The leader of the free world doesn’t believe in the free world.”

Moreover, for those of us in agriculture, the consequences are very real. The current global trade apparatus has paid huge dividends for the American farmer, as Deputy Agriculture Secretary Steve Censky recently tried to quantify:

“Twenty percent of farmers’ income is from trade,” he told Agri-Pulse in April, and each billion dollars in annual U.S. farm exports (about $140 billion in 2017) supports 8,000 American jobs, he said. Indeed, the U.S. agricultural trade surplus has tallied roughly $21 billion each of the past two fiscal years.

USDA Foreign Ag Service

General Mattis was right: our forebears established a rules-based system of foreign diplomacy and trade that has served the planet well for three-quarters of a century. They “paid it forward” with an incredible gift that provided relative peace, stability and a continually-improving quality of life. Institutions such as the WTO, NATO and the United Nations may be far from perfect, but they have kept the planet relatively free of the types of global conflict (two World Wars, for starters) from which they were conceived. Ripping that order apart on a whim is pure folly, plain and simple.

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