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By Staff | Nov 2, 2018

I have invoked Mark Twain’s observation a number of times that history doesn’t repeat itself, “but it rhymes.” Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chrystia Freeland, gave USTR Robert Lighthizer the book, ‘The Road to 1914: The War that Ended the Peace’ by Margaret MacMillan. I took that as a book recommendation and I can see why she wanted Lighthizer to read it.

The world at the turn of that century was stable until it wasn’t. There is a lot of rhyming with today’s events and what occurred prior to WWI. The confrontation between Germany and Britain on the road to 1914 bears similarities to the confrontation building between China and the U.S. ‘America First’ contrasts with ‘Made in China 2025’ and the ‘Belt and Road Initiative.’ There is a clash coming between them.

Trump added a clause to the USMCA that would blow the agreement up if either Mexico or Canada negotiated a trade deal with China without U.S. approval. Japanese PM Abe was talking trade with Xi Jinping. Japan has also begun to negotiate a bi-lateral trade agreement with the U.S. I expect a similar clause will be inserted in a U.S.-Japanese trade agreement to attempt to prevent Japan from strengthening a trade alliance with China. U.S.-EU negotiations come next and they will be tougher for a number of reasons, including that the Belt and Road initiative connects China to Europe.

Trump does tend to demagogue on issues. He said in his UN speech that our foreign aid will only go to people who like us and respect us rather than just be based on need. Americans do see their hand being bitten after the hand out was extended and Trump sees that domestic animosity has grown toward foreign interventions and is responding to it.

Polls show that Americans significantly exaggerate how much of the U,S, budget they think goes to foreign aid. In 2015 it was .7 percent of the federal budget.

Americans imagine that it is many times that. Historically this aid, starting with the Marshall plan, has been instrumental in helping the world stabilize both economically and politically. That aid was used to buy friends who would be allies as enemies of the Soviet Union but with the Soviet Union now part of history, Trump no longer wants to buy our friends. The investment that the U.S. has made in the world since WWII has brought great returns to the U.S. as well as made us the global leader that we have been. In the general sense it has not been wasted. Ending it signals our retreat as ‘the’ world leader, leaving a void for others to fill. That void will create instability and conflict. Trump is signaling there is no free lunch. The world is waiting to see how this new policy works. The U.S. Navy is still patrolling the Persian Gulf despite having no vested interest in the oil being produced and shipped from there. America First is a work in progress.

Probably the greatest failure in U.S. foreign policy over the past few decades has been the idea that we were going to make the world safe for democracy. Democracies have not exactly been busting out all over. People the world over, when offered up a chance at democracy, have not risen up and grabbed it as many in the old order expected them too. The Iraqis did not embrace U.S. troops as liberators as Donald Rumsfeld expected. Trump voiced the change in U.S. policy at the UN around these words, “I honor the right of every nation in this room to pursue their own customs, beliefs and traditions. The United States will not tell you how to live, or work or worship, we ask only that you honor our sovereign rights in return.” In short, we will leave you alone if you leave us alone. We will all be nationalists.

That was a license to handle human rights however they wish with no intervention from the U.S. if they are abused. That was music to the ears of despots and dictators who use oppression of human rights to maintain control of terrible regimes to green light whatever conduct short of using chemicals weapons on their populace that they desire. Pre-Jamal Khashoggi murder in Turkey, Canada criticized the human rights record of the new Saudi Crown Prince tweeting “Canada is gravely concerned about additional arrests of civil society and women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia and called for the release of the activists imprisoned in Saudi Arabia.”

The Kingdom responded by calling Canada’s response “an unacceptable affront and direct violation of its sovereignty.” Riyadh expelled the Canadian Ambassador, froze all new investment and trade with Canada and recalled the 16,000 Saudi students that were studying in Canada. What did we do? Nothing. That means we took the Saudi side signaling to anyone that may have missed it in Trump’s speech to the UN that we are no longer interested in human rights. We left Canada who has been at our side on every critical issue over the past century hanging out by themselves. Trump did the sword dance with the Saudi King to seal the deal.

There is evidence that we have learned nothing from history in the support for use of tariffs and the trade war. There will be consequences to our isolation from global institutions. Hopefully history doesn’t rhyme with the road to 1914.

David Kruse is president of CommStock Investments Inc., author and producer of The CommStock Report, an ag commentary and market analysis available daily by radio and by subscription on DTN/FarmDayta and the Internet.

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