During the Cold War, presidents cited the domino theory to justify American intervention in Vietnam. If Vietnam went Communist, they said, the other countries of Southeast Asia would fall to Communism one after the other, like a row of falling dominos.
Today, a think-tank supporter of President Donald Trump has resurrected the domino theory with a new twist for a new war. He says the president's strategy for the trade war he's waging is to knock off one trade partner after the other until all the dominos fall on the last and most important domino -- China.
Considering the collateral damage this war is inflicting on farmers and ranchers, it would be nice to think someone has a strategy for it. There hasn't been much evidence of one so far.
What the world has seen instead is Commander-in-chief Trump lashing out in all directions, apparently determined to wage trade war on all fronts simultaneously. A thrust here, a feint there, an occasional retreat -- interesting tactics but on the surface, at least, no strategy. Could it be that he's been pursuing a secret dominos strategy all along?
Stephen Moore of the Heritage Foundation is Trump's domino theorist. "I keep talking about the dominos," Moore told Politico, "-- that once you've got Mexico, you've got Canada, you've got Europe, you've got Japan, then all of a sudden China's isolated. Then you've got a lot more leverage." (https://www.politico.com/…)
It should be noted that unlike Trump, Moore is a long-time believer in free trade. Though he's an avid Trump true believer, he has called Trump's tariffs "stupid" (https://www.dallasnews.com/…) but argued that "the threat of tariffs may work." (https://www.creators.com/…)
By "work," he means they may force Mexico, Canada, the European Union and Japan -- the intermediate "dominos" -- to make trade concessions to the U.S. and then join in ganging up on China. Like much of Washington these days, Moore considers China "the bad actor on the world stage."
The most literal-minded problem with this new domino theory is that it doesn't accurately describe the strategy Moore is attributing to Trump. If you topple the first block in a row of dominos, the remainder fall, one after the other, without much further effort. Make a deal with Mexico, in other words, and Canada falls automatically, followed in short order by the EU, Japan, and China.
That's different from using each deal to gain leverage for the next, which is how Moore describes the domino strategy. In this leverage version of the game, the dominos don't topple; the most you can say is they sort of lean against each other.
Am I being picky and semantical? Perhaps. But to wage war successfully you need a clear strategy. Sloppy metaphors are the enemy of clarity.
The bigger problem with the domino theory is that by flailing at all of America's trade partners at the same time, Trump has, until recently at least, shown little sign of appreciating how having allies against China would increase his negotiating leverage.
It's increasingly clear Trump sees China as the big problem, but in his attack on China he sure doesn't seem to be waiting for any dominos to fall. Talks with the EU have just begun and the U.S. and Japan are still talking about talking, but Trump has already imposed 25% tariffs on $50 billion of imports from China, threatened 25% tariffs on another $200 billion and warned that he might even extend the 25% to the final $267 billion.
So nice try, Stephen Moore. As a Trump fan, you tried to make the president's trade-war maneuvers look like the product of deep strategic thinking. But the domino theory doesn't quite cut it.
If the strategy isn't dominos, what, if anything, is it?
In another context, Moore has offered a simpler explanation. "Trump's ultimate strategy is that we have leverage and we should be exploiting it," he told the Wall Street Journal. (https://www.wsj.com/…) Alas, that doesn't quite cut it, either. Using the leverage at your disposal is something any negotiator does, but it doesn't rise to the level of "strategy."
The best I can do in imagining a strategy is to say Trump has, belatedly, realized he needs to enlist allies in a common front against China. This would explain the surprisingly friendly reception he gave the EU president a few weeks ago and the agreement to put aside new tariff threats and conduct negotiations with the EU. It might explain the administration's decision to seek more talks with China before imposing the next round of tariffs, which could be seen as waiting for allies to arrive before firing the next artillery round.
One problem with this explanation is that it assumes a successful conclusion of talks with the EU. The first round of those talks left one trade pundit saying, "There isn't going to be an easy win here" for Washington. (https://www.nytimes.com/…) It remains to be seen whether the U.S. will pull punches with the EU and Japan to keep them onboard against China. If not, can there really be a common front?
The Vietnam War discredited the domino theory; most of Southeast Asia never went Communist even though Vietnam did. The Trump trade war doesn't do it much credit, either. The open question is whether there is any other way to make sense of how the U.S. is conducting this war.
Urban Lehner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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