The New American Imperialism

I’ve been thinking about this post for quite a while, but have been focused on the Ontario election for the last few weeks. It’s definitely top of mind now.

The idea of American imperialism is essential to explaining the Trump Administration’s seemingly bizarre parting shot at the G7 summit. Wikipedia defines American imperialism as “a policy aimed at extending the political, economic, and cultural control of the United States government over areas beyond its boundaries.” The article then lists several instruments of domination, including “military conquest, treaty, subsidization, economic penetration through private companies followed by intervention when those interests are threatened, or by regime change.” But the instrument the article leaves out – and that is now very much on display – is the imposition of tariffs unilaterally and in violation of previous treaties.

In any dynamic economy it is a fact of life that some industries grow and others decline. The Trump Administration is fine with growth but not retrenchment. For them, the only reason any US-based industry would decline is unfair international competition. This is because they view American business as naturally more productive and efficient than business anywhere else in the world. Thus, they think it is always appropriate to protect declining US industries such as coal and steel.

Also, when some of their industries grow and others decline, most countries use public policy to support market forces in moving resources, especially labor, from declining to growing industries. The Trump Administration does not want to do that, because it is quite happy to see all the gains from growth go to the winners – capital and labour associated with those industries. It does not want to impose on them any of the burden of adjustment.

The Trump Administration wants to either reduce imports or boost exports so that US industry can avoid having to adjust. In terms of its favorite metric, the balance of trade, it demands that the US run a favorable trade balance with every country in the world for every industry. When it makes these arguments it is almost always dishonest about current trade balances, usually ignoring the US’s positive balances on services. Put differently, the Trump Administration sees every other country in the world as a means to its chosen end of American prosperity. I call that imperialism. What the Trump Administration ignores is that trade has to be mutually beneficial. If it isn’t, then it is exploitation.

Most of the nations of the world (164 to be exact) belong to the World Trade Organization, which attempts to oversee a rules-based trading system intended to ensure that international trade is mutually beneficial. The Trump Administration, however, prefers bilateral agreements because the US is the world’s largest economy, and hence would have more clout in any bilateral negotiation. The logical consequence of that approach would be for the US to drop out of the WTO, just as it has dropped out of the Paris Accord on Climate Change.

Given the American position on trade, Canada has been infuriating because it insists on a rules-based multilateral approach, because it will impose countervailing tariffs in response to the US’s tariffs on aluminum and steel, and because it regards an uncertainty-creating 5 year sunset clause in NAFTA as a deal-breaker. What’s worse, Justin Trudeau had the audacity to say this to the entire world.

A second aspect of American imperialism is a unilateral arms race, investing ever more resources in what is already by far the most powerful military in the world. It can threaten to use overwhelming military force to counter military threats, such as North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Maybe it wants to threaten military force to further its economic interests as well.

Etymologically, emperor has the same root as imperialism. Given President Trump’s anti-democratic and authoritarian tendencies, imperialism fits here too.

What can Canadians, Britons, the French, the Germans, and other nations do to oppose American imperialism? We can insist on multilateral approaches and institutions. And we have to hope that individual nations don’t defect and cut bilateral deals with the Trump Administration.

As individuals, we can participate in a growing BDS movement regarding the US. Buy locally, if comparable products are available. Look for other places to visit. Sources tell me that American diplomats overseas are feeling like pariahs. Maybe they will pass the message back to Washington.

We should not think that it is only Donald Trump and his advisers (at this moment Bolton, Miller, Kudlow) who hold this imperialist perspective. His political base also appears to share his nationalism, nativism, and xenophobia. Ultimately, it is only American voters who can reject those sentiments and that approach. More American voters have to be convinced that, in the international arena, negotiation and collaboration are preferable to confrontation and domination. It is bizarre for President Trump to be conciliatory with North Korea and bellicose towards Canada.

Non-Americans are not permitted to contribute financially to political causes in the US. But we can raise our voices and, when the opportunity presents itself, vote with our wallets and our feet.

6 comments

  1. Sandy, I agree with pretty well everything in your analysis. You don’t have to live very long in the US to realize that its economic model is causing economic disruption, which is closely followed by social disruption. The growing gap between the rich and the middle class and poor is a symptom, as I suppose was Trump’s election.

    However, I would suggest that the views espoused by Trump cut across a wide swath of the US political spectrum, not merely his political base. There is little daylight between the parties on this. Indeed, you could argue that the Democrats are in general even more protectionist than Republicans. Trump won the rust belt states by appealing to traditional Democrats, primarily on this issue.

    US Imperialism goes along with American Exceptionalism and has been a fact of life for a very long time. Trump merely speaks (or shouts) more loudly than his predecessors. In line with that, the US is not very good at keeping international agreements when it does sign on, or even adhering to international norms, ditching them for political expediency. Of course, much of the time it does not even sign or ratify multilateral treaties – e. Law of the Sea, ICJ, etc.

    Back in 1988 when the Canada-US FTA was being negotiated, one of the main objections was that the US could not be counted on to abide by agreements and that Canada, by tying itself even closer to the US economically, would make itself more vulnerable to US pressure. We’ll soon see whether that concern was justified.

  2. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

    Trump and his base followers (both meanings of “base” here) are a clear minority in US politics. Chandran rightly observes, however, that individually, a number of Trump’s policies attract numerous other sectors: his election was a true coalescence of groups who would otherwise never get along. No political observers expected Trump could juggle the disparate and oft-conflicting issues of each interest group, but his outrageous behavior has so-far satisfied each of them.

    What Sandford has right, although it’s hard for this internationalist (myself) to admit, is the inherent “imperialist” approach of almost all Americans. Yeah, me too.

    “Manifest destiny,” “the Monroe Doctrine,” “the World’s policeman,” “Bi-polar world politics,” etc., these are staples in our middle-school history books. Even Jimmy Carter stood on the White House bully pulpit to advance US themes, although he was/is an internationalist by nature.

    Obama was the exception that makes Trump policies seem so extreme. (No one was more imperialist than Dick Cheney!)

  3. I don’t think the time is very far off when the EU enters into some type of trade agreement with China. Chinese direct investment in Europe has grown from just two billion euros in 2010 to 79 billion in 2017. As the US becomes more and more unreliable, China will become a more appealing partner, at least economically.

    The US has sat at the bottom of the OECD’s league tables when it comes to spending on “labour market policies,” primarily retraining and relocating displaced workers. We have laws on the books that are supposed to apply to the economic disruptions of trade, but those programs are largely underfunded and ignored. And even the programs we have tried have largely failed (https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2018/01/why-is-the-us-so-bad-at-protecting-workers-from-automation/549185/).

    There’s no question our current foreign policy is “bizarre.” I don’t see it improving until at least 2021.

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