No Donald Trump trip would be complete without a shocking quote, and last week in Beijing, at the Great Hall of the People, the president obliged. After declaring the economic playing field between China and the US “one-sided” and “unfair,” he continued with a big “but”: “I don’t blame China,” Trump told the audience of business leaders from both countries. “After all, who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for benefit of their citizens? I give China great credit.”
According to reports, his comments were met by gasps and nervous laughter. The initial reaction makes sense: It violates diplomatic protocol to confront your host so directly with an allegation of unfairness.
But the laughter is equally understandable. It’s bizarre and self-contradictory to say that you don’t blame your opponent for taking advantage of you, because that’s what countries do. After all, how can the trade balance be unfair if it is just the result of ordinary bilateral negotiations between two self-interested economic actors?
Many of Trump’s outrageous statements don’t deserve careful parsing; their intent is obvious. And it’s tempting to think that Trump contradicted himself in this case simply because he wanted to give his domestic constituents a soundbite about how China is unfair while in the same breath giving his Chinese hosts a conciliatory quote.
But in this instance, there is something more to Trump’s statement. The internal contradiction of attacking China for its unfairness while simultaneously purporting to show it respect for pursuing its own interests reveals the very essence of what a populist, nationalist foreign policy looks like. This kind of populist nationalism is actually harmful to the possibility of productive international negotiation.
Consider Trump’s view of how nations ought to behave. In his picture, the leaders of every country should promote the interests of their own citizens ahead of the interests of other countries. They should say so openly. And leaders who do a good job of promoting their citizens’ interests at the expense of others are worthy of respect.
Trump first made this clear in his speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations. Referring to his “America first” rhetoric, featured in his inauguration speech, he told the foreign leaders at the UN that he expected they would always prioritize their own countries’ interests. “I will always put America first,” he said. “Just like you, as the leaders of your countries will always, and should always, put your countries first.”
From the standpoint of foreign policy realism, there’s nothing wrong with this statement, which simply asserts a deep truth of international relations. Foreign policy realists are committed precisely to the idea that countries act in their own interests, and that they are right to do so.
The problem for Trump is that he ordinarily rejects the key adjunct to realism, which is that fairness has nothing to do with international relations, a realm where the weak will inevitably unnecessarily oppress the strong. To argue that an imbalance of trade is unfair, you have to insist that you are in a game where fairness counts.
Thus, it would make no sense to say that it was unfair for Floyd Mayweather to defeat Conor McGregor because he punched more skillfully. As long as both fighters competed by the rules, the whole point of the match is that the better boxer should win.
Yet as a populist, Trump needs to claim not that China is more economically clever or more powerful than the US, but that China is cheating, gaming the system to its own advantage. And that populism is incompatible with the amorality of ordinary foreign policy realism.
This contradiction isn’t just incoherent -- it’s wrong and dangerous.
It’s wrong because economics, especially trade, is not a zero-sum game. If it were, it would be logically impossible to negotiate any deals that leave both sides better off than they would be absent those agreements.
Realists can acknowledge that countries will negotiate according to their own self-interest. But they also need to acknowledge that both sides can improve their positions by crafting mutually advantageous deals. Otherwise we would be reduced to a war of all against all.
And the contradiction is dangerous because it undercuts the idea of fairness in international trade. That ideal of fairness depends on there being rules of the game. Those rules are derived not from populism, but from classical liberalism: the notion, going back to Adam Smith, that reducing barriers to trade will make everyone better off in the long run.
A populist who complains about unfairness while saying that it’s reasonable for all countries to pursue only their own interests is thus putting all countries on a collision course to trade war. Every country will try to pursue its own advantages -- and every country will insist that nobody else is playing fair.
Trump’s foreign policy may well turn out to be a combination of populism and realism. If that’s true, expect lots more self-righteous whining from all sides -- which can lead to hardened positions, stalled negotiations and the breakdown of international cooperation.By Noah Feldman
Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. -- Ed.