Trump's get-rich-quick foreign policy puts a price on everything, including peace

Jerry Adler
Senior Editor
President Trump (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, Getty Images)

Psst! Do you run a country? Wanna get rich quick — even without massive reserves of oil? Let Donald Trump show you how!

Over the weekend, the Trump administration, in the person of Jared Kushner, announced the first part of its long-awaited plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Its central component was the creation of a huge investment fund meant to induce the Palestinian leadership to surrender their national ambitions in exchange for the chance to participate in a new economic boom fueled by tourism and other postmodern industries. The administration calls this approach “peace to prosperity.”

To put it in perspective, it’s actually not such a huge investment fund: $50 billion over 10 years, divided unequally among the Palestinian territories and the nations of Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan. Over the same 10-year period, American military aid to Israel will total about $38 billion.

And most of the money for the “peace” plan wouldn’t even come from the U.S.; Kushner wants America’s Middle Eastern, European and Asian allies to pony up a large share of it. “The whole notion here is that we want people to agree on the plan, and then we’ll have a discussion with people to see who is interested in potentially doing what,” he told Reuters Television.

Does this idea sound familiar? Perhaps because at almost the same time Trump was dangling a version of the same deal — do what we want and you’ll get rich — to Iran, which had just shot down an American drone: “We’re not going to have Iran have a nuclear weapon,” he told reporters. “When they agree to that, they’re going to have a wealthy country. They’re going to be so happy, and I’m going to be their best friend. I hope that happens.”

It’s also the same pitch Trump has made many times to Kim Jong Un, most recently just a week ago in an interview with George Stephanopoulos: “[North Korea] has ― almost of any undeveloped country anywhere in the world, that country has the chance to be economically a behemoth. It’s a phenomenal location. That country can be so rich.”

In Trump’s worldview, a phenomenal location is a prime requisite to becoming economically a behemoth, and the president has lavishly praised North Korea’s potential as a venue for luxury golf courses, if Kim would just stop building atomic bombs and testing intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Even nations without a nuclear weapons program can join in the bonanza — like, say, Venezuela, according to the White House transcript of Trump’s remarks in March to the wife of the man the U.S. recognizes as the leader of that country: “The potential of Venezuela, if done properly and with democracy, would be incredible. It was one of the richest companies [countries] — certainly one of the truly rich countries of the world, and now it’s one of the poorest countries of the world.”

Trump’s experience for most of his life has involved dealing with “companies” rather than “countries,” so the slip of the tongue is understandable. But his propensity to frame virtually every issue confronting him as president in terms of profit, loss and wealth says a lot about the mindset he has carried with him into the White House.

Specifically, he is fixated on a theory known as “mercantilism,” which measures comparative economic success among nations by their balance of trade, treating international commerce as a zero-sum game. Mercantilism had its heyday in the 16th through 18th centuries, but has been in decline more or less since Adam Smith wrote “The Wealth of Nations.” In prevailing economic theory over the last few centuries, if a factory in Mexico sells a pair of socks to Walmart for a dollar, neither side is disadvantaged: Mexico has the dollar, and a customer in the U.S. has the socks.

Obviously, international trade in the real world is more complicated. Nations, even wealthy ones like the U.S., whose per-capita GDP is around seven times that of Mexico, have an interest in protecting their industries and jobs to balance against the desire to provide imported consumer goods at the lowest price. That’s why there are thousands of pages of trade treaties among countries. But Trump, at least in his public statements, seems to recognize only one side of the transaction: the dollar leaving the U.S.

That’s a dollar someone could have spent at one of his hotels, after all.

Here is how he sees it:

On the other side of the ledger, he sometimes seems to view his job as being marketer in chief for American exports, notably military gear. Here is how he recently explained his position on selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, in the face of objections by liberal snowflakes to that nation bombing civilians in Yemen and hacking journalists to death:

“Saudi Arabia, very rich country. We defend them! We subsidize Saudi Arabia. They have nothing but cash, right? And they buy a lot from us. Four hundred fifty billion dollars, they bought. And you had people wanting to cut off Saudi Arabia. They bought $450 billion! I don’t want to lose them!”

Or, even more simply, to Chuck Todd on NBC’s “Meet the Press”:

Take their money. Take their money, Chuck.”

Well, even one unemployed defense-industry worker might be too high a price for the nation to pay over an issue as abstract as human rights — although the risk would seem to be small, since there is actually a shortage of skilled labor in many industrial trades in the United States right now. But what about the geopolitical calculation, if there is one, behind Trump’s insistent belief that if other countries just do what he tells them to, tourists will descend, industry will flourish and the world will all get rich together?

It didn’t seem to carry much weight with the Palestinians, who quickly rejected Kushner’s proposal and said they would boycott the conference this week in Bahrain, where he will formally present it.

“Palestine is not for sale,” Ismail Rudwan, an official with Islamic militant group Hamas that governs Gaza, told NBC News.

Kushner was undaunted.

“I laugh when they attack this as the 'Deal of the Century,’” Kushner said in an interview with Reuters on Saturday, referring to Palestinian leaders who have dismissed his plan as an attempt to buy off their aspirations for statehood.

“This is going to be the ‘Opportunity of the Century’ if they have the courage to pursue it,” he added.

Kushner’s “opportunity of the century” is, of course, tied to a whole set of terms that the Palestinians find unacceptable for other reasons, chief among them their desire for their own country, which isn’t on the table. The point here is not to take sides on that issue. If peace between Israel and Palestine could be purchased for $50 billion, it would be one of the world’s great bargains. If you throw in wealth, or even less poverty, for the inhabitants of Gaza and the West Bank, I would happily pay my share of the bill as an American taxpayer, especially since Kushner says other countries will somehow be persuaded to pick up most of it.

But the narrowness of Trump’s vision is apparent in all these exchanges. It overlooks the other ways in which nations conceive their interests, all the other reasons foreign leaders might pursue a course inimical to American policy: religion, ideology, national pride or even, in the case of North Korea, the selfish concerns of a ruling elite that seems to have little interest in sharing prosperity with the rest of the population. It may be beyond Donald Trump’s conception, but getting rich is not necessarily the default ambition of everyone else in the world.

And any foreign leader with access to an intelligence service, or even the internet, might know enough to be skeptical of his promises to show them the path to wealth. If not, there are some alumni of Trump University who could enlighten them.

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