A few years ago, I cowrote an article for the magazine Foreign Affairs that argued the world is safer, freer, richer, healthier, and happier than ever before in human history.
This wasn’t some Panglossian notion masquerading as a serious article. The data backing up the assertion was, and largely remains, unimpeachable. There are far fewer wars today and more democracies. People live longer lives. They are far less likely to be poor, more likely to go to school and have access to health care.
At the time, I believed that, barring some kind of black swan event, things were likely to stay that away.
Unfortunately, I had not quite considered the possibility of Donald Trump.
Today, as the president heads to Quebec, to meet with the other leaders of the G7, the international system — which the United States helped to create — and helped pave the way for a far brighter global future, is in genuine peril.
Out of sheer petulance and in direct opposition to America’s economic interests Trump has initiated a pointless and dangerous trade war with America’s key allies. To add insult to injury, Trump has, in just the last 48 hours, taken to Twitter to repeatedly attack Canada and what he claims is that nation’s unfair trade practices, which he says are “hurting our Farmers” and “killing our Agriculture.”
Never mind that Canada is the top market for US agricultural exports, Trump’s words are emblematic of his complete ignorance about how trade works. He seems oblivious to the fact that free trade helps consumers in the form of lower prices and greater choice. His fixation on declining manufacturing industries like steel allows him to miss the fact that many American businesses compete quite effectively in a free trade environment and rely on the ability to export their products overseas. He doesn’t appear to understand that tariffs are a tax on consumers, harm American companies, and will lead to higher prices and slower growth. Perhaps worst of all, Trump officials have hinted that if the World Trade Organization deems America’s trade practices illegal, the US may choose to ignore the ruling. Such a move would do grievous, perhaps permanent damage to a global trading system that has helped to break down trade barriers and spurred extraordinary global economic advances.
Of course, it’s not just Canada. Trump has gone to war with the European Union as well, imposing steel and aluminum tariffs on America’s largest trading partner. This follows on a host of actions that have alienated America’s closest political allies, including the decision last year to pull out of the Paris climate agreement and the recent move to end US involvement in the Iran nuclear deal.
Meanwhile, Trump is playing nice with the world’s worst dictator, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, preparing to give him and his totalitarian nation its greatest PR victory — a meeting with a US president. To make matters even worse, Trump suggested this morning that Russia, which, in case we all forget, interfered in the US presidential election, should be invited back to the G7. (Moscow was kicked out of the global confab after it seized and annexed Crimea from Ukraine.) Conspiracy theorists like to argue that Trump is an agent of Russia, and while I have no evidence to back that up, his actions certainly suggest that he’s putting Moscow’s interests ahead of America’s.
Before our very eyes, the alliances that helped pave the way for the current era of global stability are eroding. With America increasingly inclined to go it alone and ignore international laws and norms, the rules-based international system is wavering. And at a time when the 25-year ascent of political freedom is under assault in places like Russia, China, Turkey, the Philippines, Hungary, and Poland, the US president is offering aid to comfort to those responsible for the rollback.
Consolidation by authoritarian leaders, a rollback of the global trading system, and a lack of fealty to global rules that have been developed and supported by generations of American political leaders is a recipe for disaster. It’s the opposite of what brought me to the point, several years ago, of declaring that the world is one of “clear and present safety.”
A world that is less free, less economically integrated and less stable is a world incapable of dealing with threats to global peace and security — be they civil conflicts or the inexorable spread of global climate change. The simple fact of the matter is that Trump is that black swan event that could undermine decades of human progress. While even Trump cannot reverse the transformative declines in global poverty or the extraordinary advances in global health and well-being, the damage he is capable of doing — and already has done — is not to be underestimated. Yes, his actions are a clear and present danger, not just to global stability, but also to America’s national security. Unless he is stopped — and stopped soon — the damage to America and the world could be irreversible.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.