US trade policy is a conundrum.
That’s from a Goldman note out last weekend and it serves as an amusingly deadpan reminder of just how utterly confused the rest of the world is when it comes to what Donald Trump’s vision is for the future of international commerce.
And you know what? Just take a minute to let that sink in. In the surreal reality that is 2018, Donald Trump’s opinion on the future of international commerce not only matters, but is in fact the controlling factor when it comes to the near-term outlook for global trade.
Imagine doing some kind of game theoretic experiment where the outcomes are related to geopolitics and where one of the players is a chimpanzee (you know, just to see what would happen). That’s what we were all accustomed to prior to 2017. Trump would do impromptu television interviews where he’d tease his White House ambitions on the way to doing some ad hoc theorizing about what he would do if his finger were on all of the various “buttons”.
It was fine because everyone (including and especially Trump himself) realized that this was just for fun. Those TV cameos also served as a helpful reminder of why you don’t let chimpanzees negotiate trade deals and you know, nuclear standoffs.
Well, fast forward to 2018 and the chimpanzee is loose in the NORAD command center.
The results, thus far, have been predictably unpredictable.
It’s impossible to predict what it’s going to do next because it’s hard to nail down what factors it’s considering when deciding which buttons to push (Is it a color-based decision calculus? Are flip-switches more compelling than buttons? Does it matter that some blink and some don’t? Is proximity to where it’s fingers and toes are important? Etc.).
If you introduced a bunch of people into the environment, decoding its reaction function would become more difficult still, because assuming it displays an affinity for one person’s advice and visual cues over someone else’s, there wouldn’t be any way of knowing why.
For most of us, this is just a tragicomedy that we have no real way of influencing other than to try and get Trump’s attention by tweeting at him – it’s a self-contained narrative and we’re just spectators with the caveat that unlike the crowd in a theatre, the outcome could kill us all, depending on how wrong it goes.
But other world leaders ostensibly have the means (if not yet the will) to forcibly extract this thing from the control booth or at least to install a system of negative stimuli that discourage it from pushing the really dangerous buttons or flipping the really perilous switches.
So that’s what G-7 leaders will attempt to do in Canada this week at a pow wow that’s being billed as “G-6+1” to account for the fact that it isn’t clear whether Trump is interested in America being part of the developed world anymore.
French President Emmanuel Macron has already said he literally won’t sign a joint statement if he and Merkel can’t secure concessions from Trump when it comes to trade, Iran and the climate accord. I’m sorry, but it seems entirely unrealistic to think that Trump is going to just come to his senses on any of that all of the sudden.
On Thursday, at a joint presser with Justin Trudeau, Macron took the rhetoric up a notch. To wit:
You say President Trump doesn’t care. Maybe. But none of us are eternal and our countries, the commitments taken, go beyond us. None of us who have been elected by the people can say ‘all prior commitments disappear.’ It’s just not true, there is a continuity in state affairs at the heart of international laws. Sometimes we’ve inherited some commitments that weren’t core to our beliefs, but we stuck to them, because that is how it works for nations. And that will be the case for the United States — like for every great democracy.
You can count me a bit skeptical of that assessment. And not because I don’t generally agree with the sentiment. Rather, I’m not entirely sure Macron appreciates just how irrational Trump is or, perhaps more accurately, I’m not sure Macron appreciates the extent to which Trump’s “rationality” is of a different sort than that possessed by other world leaders.
Like the chimp at the sticks, he’s got “a system” all right – we just don’t know what the fuck it is and we don’t have any way to figure it out.
The real problem though (as alluded to above), is that the more people you introduce into his immediate surroundings, the harder it gets to figure out what he’s responding to and why. Again, there’s a “logic” to it, but it’s a logic all his own and we’ll never know how it works.
So what’s to stop this from going horribly wrong? Well, nothing really. About the best we can do is pray the rest of the world doesn’t attempt to emulate a thought process that is unique to Trump. Or, as BofAML succinctly puts it in a new note:
This is unlikely to be a smooth scenario in any case. The US has just started a chicken game of trade protection in which we are arguing the rest of the world should not participate in the first place. Things may get worse before getting better, but at least we may be able to avoid the worst if logic prevails outside the US.
Think on that.