It is not so much a matter of appeasing Trump as of retaining some composure and indulging this unpredictable figure when he gets out of the wrong side of bed
Whether it is a couple of random, economically illiterate, tweets about the trade war with China; or the dispatch of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (plus associated bomber force) to the waters off Iran, Donald Trump never tires of picking a fight. Venezuela, China, Iran, Mexico, Nato, Africa, Canada… the list is impressive.
Of the various scraps, the one with China is much the most dangerous to America and the global economy. Mr Trump has never been entirely wrong about China. Like his predecessors, he has found it difficult to adjust to China’s disruptive re-entry to the world economy.
There has long been frustration about currency manipulation, trade rules, intellectual property protection, labour standards and much else. Unlike his predecessors, President Trump has taken the low road of ultimatums and aggressive wars of words, as in the latest outburst on social media.
Mr Trump wants to reduce his nation’s trade deficit with China – by reducing China’s exports to the US. It is a fine objective. America’s vast deficit with China has been a hugely distortionary factor in global finance for far too long, and one that contributed to the 2008 banking crisis and the Great Recession that followed.
When China’s economy stumbles so does the wider world’s – as the slowdown in Germany or layoffs at Jaguar Land Rover demonstrate, China is now such a significant player in world trade that its fortunes affect virtually every nation and every workforce and family to some extent.
Trump’s latest attempt – and it is a crude one – to bully China deserves to fail. So does his posturing towards Iran. Apparently inspired by his national security adviser John Bolton, a long time superhawk towards Tehran, the president has sent the aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf to persuade the Iranians that he means business about their alleged pursuit of a nuclear arsenal.
Parking a massive bomber force on the ayatollahs’ doorstep will send them the wrong message. For any rational leader in Iran, either in the civilian government or the guiding theocracy, will draw the conclusion that they had better hurry up and develop a nuclear deterrent to protect themselves. They will already have noticed how North Korea has forced America to the negotiating table precisely because this impoverished state somehow managed to get its hands on weapons of mass destruction.
Unfortunately for China, Iran and the international community, we are dealing with a childish yob in the White House, but one in charge of a superpower, not a train set in the nursery.
The only possible approach, at least in the short term, is to attempt to deal with him, and to accommodate at least some of America’s more reasonable wishes. Thus, Iran should be much more open and transparent towards the nuclear weapons inspection regime, and be willing to renegotiate the treaty that the US has now renounced (but to which the EU remains committed).
China too, for the sake of its precious economic growth – the engine room of the world – will need to embrace an ever more liberal approach towards foreign investment and legal protection for economic intellectual assets. A less assertive naval policy would also win it friends in the region and among its Belt and Road Initiative partners.
It is not so much a matter of appeasing Trump as of retaining some adult composure and indulging this unpredictable figure when he gets out of the wrong side of bed. Yes, international relations in the age of Trump have come to this.