Most of us choose not to run our lives as bullies. That’s not because we’re all so nice; it’s because being a bully is usually a bad option. For one thing it’s precarious—the bully loses everything as soon as he’s not top dog. And what’s worse is that it precludes other ways of getting things done. The bully has nothing to offer but bluster.
The US has been the predominant world power since World War II, but we’ve generally chosen not to play the bully. Instead we’ve used international institutions to enshrine our views as a kind of international rule of law. That has been a very successful enterprise—no one wants to be odd man out. And after 50 years we remain both the military and the economic powerhouse. (How that filters down to the well-being of the population is another story.)
Recently however we’ve made the all-too-common mistake of believing our own propaganda. We’re just too nice, and in our beneficence everyone is stealing from us. For example NATO—which exists to make sure a Russian WW III is fought in Europe and not here—is now a case of wasting money to defend ungrateful allies. The time has come to step out from behind the curtain and take all that we can get.
How have we been doing as a bully? Let’s look at a few examples:
In Iran we’ve decided to take off the kid gloves and go for everything short of war. The result thus far has been to strengthen the hard-liners in the government and to unite the population behind hatred of the US. Initial steps have begun to resume nuclear weapons development—an effort that has strong support in the population as a whole.
Regime change remains unlikely, and even if it happens, it won’t be pro-US. As for nuclear weapons, we’ve made North Korea a proof-positive of their value.
Trump administration high-handedness has intensified the ever-present fear of US domination—even among Maduro’s opponents. That played a big part in the failure of the Guaidó uprising.
Arbitrary exercise of power makes us weaker.
This is currently the most consequential case. We have legitimate grievances with China, but the situation is not so black and white, and it matters how we play it.
Our bullying approach began with tariffs before negotiation. Then we chose to violate the our own trade agreements to go for an exclusive deal to benefit only us. And we are unabashedly using the process to prevent China from challenging our dominance. Finally we’re consumed with a feverish China bashing that has nothing with the reality of China’s effect on the US economy—which has many positives, and the negative effects don’t begin to compete with what we’ve done to ourselves.
There are two points worth emphasizing:
- The US represents 18% of Chinese exports, as does the EU. By making this an exclusive deal we lost half our leverage. That was a “get out of jail free” card for the Chinese. They didn’t have to worry about dividing the West, because we did it for them. (Not the only example of giving China exactly what they want.)
- We have dispensed with the idea that this is about international rules for fair trade. Instead this is strictly about what our national leverage can get us. That’s not a great basis for compliance (particularly given history), and there are many ways that trade deals can fail to deliver. Further, by setting arbitrary tariffs we’re striking a blow for protectionism, not open markets. That’s the last thing we should be doing when a primary goal is access to a Chinese economy that is already larger than ours and growing faster.
The is another way to do this, and it was waiting to happen. Within the WTO China is still classified as a developing country. All parties recognize that needs to be renegotiated, which would have happened regardless of who was President. The hand we were dealt was better leverage, better compliance, and no trade war.
There’s another way to look at this. The following chart shows the kinds of items China exports to the US.
It’s not just cheap widgets. It’s the computer equipment that runs the software that is the basis for our economic strength. The worst thing China could do to us is stop its exports. So what do we really want? In some order, we want access to the Chinese market, we want a say in how China competes in the rest of the world, and we want to address intellectual property theft.
We have good means of addressing all of these, but bullying China isn’t one of them. A trade war is counterproductive for the first two, which is why we created the WTO. For the third, we now have a common interest, and it’s worth noting that Chinese hacking has gone way up, since Trump declared economic war.
Bullying behavior may give a rush of power, but it’s no better for countries than for people. It makes the world worse—most of all for US!