22 July 2019
US President Donald Trump’s demolition of the rules-based, truth-based, pro-trade world order hurts everyone. Photo: Bloomberg
US President Donald Trump’s demolition of the rules-based, truth-based, pro-trade world order hurts everyone. Photo: Bloomberg

My apology tour

American presidents are supposed to take America’s side when dealing with other countries. When Barack Obama was (falsely) accused of starting his term with a Middle East “apology tour”, it was understood that apologizing to foreigners would have been a bad thing, if true. Now Donald Trump is being heavily criticized for failing to take the side of his own intelligence services and law enforcement agencies when their findings about his friend, Russian President Vladimir Putin, ran counter to what Putin assured him.

But while US presidents are not supposed to apologize for their country, nothing says that professors can’t. Here goes:

Dear World: Not all Americans pay attention to foreign affairs. But presuming to speak on behalf of many who do: we are abjectly remorseful for inflicting Trump on you. We hope you still believe that America is better than this; will try to remain patient until this bizarre historical episode passes; and, when it does end, will join us in rebuilding an open and cooperative rules-based world order.

Many of you deserve a dedicated apology. In alphabetical order:

Dear Africa: We apologize for Trump’s obscene remarks insulting your countries in January.

Dear Australia: We apologize for Trump’s January 28, 2017, phone call with your prime minister, in which he insulted immigrants, willfully misunderstood facts regarding an American commitment, and concluded that he found talking to Putin more pleasant.

Dear Britain: While visiting your country this month, Trump thoughtlessly undermined the political position of Prime Minister Theresa May. Sorry for that, and for his mendacious attacks on London Mayor Sadiq Khan.

Dear Canada: Sorry that Trump (falsely) said Canadians invaded the US and burned down the White House in the War of 1812; that he still hasn’t learned what the bilateral trade balance is; and that he insulted G7 host Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last month.

Dear Central America: You were invisible to us until a small number of desperate refugee families reached our border, whereupon we separated small children from their families and locked them all up. How can we erase this stain? We could help your countries develop, if we tried, and at a far lower cost than the doomed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Dear China: We apologize for giving you piles of paper (Treasury bills) in exchange for all the neat merchandise you have been sending us. It’s not fair. On the other hand, your current-account surplus peaked at 10 percent of GDP in 2007, and now stands at a mere 1.3 percent of GDP. So now you are getting real goods and services in exchange for your exports.

Dear Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania: We feel terrible that Trump’s wavering support for NATO has made you fear that the US might not honor its treaty commitment to come to your aid if Russia were to invade your territory. But we would.

Dear European Union: We are sorry that Trump called you a foe and that he cheers on the forces trying to fracture you. Sorry for those steel and aluminum tariffs, too. Oh, and sorry for all those refugees we unleashed on you when we destabilized the Middle East.

Dear France: Your president, Emmanuel Macron, made an excellent effort to befriend Trump while sticking to principle. We are sorry that it did not get him anywhere and in particular that Trump, ignoring European pleas, subsequently reneged on the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

Dear Germany: Sorry that Trump has repeatedly insulted Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Dear Iran: We are sorry that Trump has withdrawn the US from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the nuclear deal is known, and is now re-imposing sanctions, even though you have verifiably abided by the agreed terms. Usually we keep our word.

Dear Ireland: We are sorry that Trump apparently believes you are part of the United Kingdom and that you like him. We know you aren’t and don’t.

Dear Japan: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is one of many foreign leaders to learn that cozying up to Trump works only while he is standing next to you. In fact, Japan was the only major US ally not granted even a temporary exemption from Trump’s 25 percent steel tariff. Also, we are sorry for Trump’s apparent indifference to North Korea’s ability to strike you (and South Korea) militarily.

Dear Mexico: What can I say? We know that “criminals” and “rapists” are in fact far less common among immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere than among native-born Americans. We know that you will not pay to build a border wall. We know that renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement in a way that would satisfy Trump, particularly the demand for periodic renewal, is not an option.

Dear Philippines, Russia, Turkey, Egypt, and others: We understand the historic attraction of a strong leader who claims to get things done. But your “strongmen” do not help your countries in the long run, and we are sorry that Trump’s disdain for the rule of law aids their economic mismanagement and human-rights abuses.

Dear South Korea: We are sorry that Trump’s eagerness to match Kim Jong-un insult for insult last year stoked fears of a catastrophic war on the Korean Peninsula. President Moon Jae-in deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for ratcheting down the risk of conflict. It’s too bad that, following Trump’s summit with Kim in June, he didn’t consult you before announcing the discontinuation of joint military exercises, while getting nothing in exchange.

Dear Sweden: Sorry that Trump on February 19, 2017, fabricated a terrorist attack “last night in Sweden”.

Dear Ukraine: Trump’s historical memory appears not to go back as far as 2014, when Russia invaded you. Or if it does, he says it’s okay because so many Ukrainians speak Russian. Sorry for that – and that Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, now in jail, worked for the pro-Russian side in Ukraine.

Dear Venezuela: We regret that Trump is prolonging the life of your awful government by threatening invasion and giving the leaders a scapegoat for their humanitarian disaster.

I also apologize to every country I left out of this tour. Trump’s demolition of the rules-based, truth-based, pro-trade world order hurts everyone. Please keep our seat warm at international meetings and organizations. The real US will return.

Copyright: Project Syndicate

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Professor of Capital Formation and Growth at Harvard University

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