And what Trump is trying to do is undermine that system, making bullying great again.
What’s his motivation? Part of the answer is that anything that weakens the Western alliance helps Vladimir Putin; if Trump isn’t literally a Russian agent, he certainly behaves like one on every possible occasion.
Beyond that, Trump obviously dislikes anything that smacks of rule of law applying equally to the weak and the strong. At home, he pardons criminal bigots while ripping children away from their parents. In international relations, he consistently praises brutal strongmen while heaping scorn on democratic leaders.
So of course he hates the international institutions created by an infinitely wiser generation of U.S. statesmen, who understood that it was in America’s own interest to use its power with respect and restraint, to bind itself by rules in order to win the world’s trust.
He may complain that other countries are cheating and taking advantage of America, that they’re imposing unfair tariffs or failing to pay their share of defense costs. But as I said, those claims are made in bad faith — they’re excuses, not real grievances. He doesn’t want to fix these institutions. He wants to destroy them.
Will anything put a check on Trump’s destructive instincts? You might have thought that Congress would place some limits, that there were at least some responsible, patriotic Republican lawmakers left. But there aren’t.
Alternatively, you might have thought that big business, which is deeply invested, literally, in the existing world order would protest effectively. So far, however, it has been utterly ineffectual. And while talk of trade war sometimes causes the stock market to wobble, as far as I can tell, investors still aren’t taking this seriously: They imagine that Trump will bluster and tweet for a while, then accept some cosmetic policy changes and call it a win.
But that kind of benign outcome looks increasingly unlikely, because Trump won’t take yes for an answer. He doesn’t want negotiations with our allies and trading partners to succeed; he wants them to fail. And by the time everyone realizes this, the damage may be irreversible.