Other than those times, however, Trump’s actions around the world have been conducted in a very different mode. Trump despises constraints of any kind. He longs to be a free agent, a mob boss backed up by the most powerful military in the world — acting, threatening, arm-twisting, negotiating, and striking (almost always bilateral) deals with allies and enemies alike, all of whom he views as adversaries and rivals to his own and America’s power. (In Trump’s mind, the two are identical.)
Regardless of the concessions Trump did or did not extract from Mexican president Obrador in their recent standoff over Central American migration and refugees, that conflict was important because it displayed something we haven’t seen in quite some time — the imposition of tariffs, not primarily as a means of negotiating concessions on trade, but as a tool for conducting foreign policy. Whereas the U.S. has spent decades attempting to uphold the liberal international order by imposing economic sanctions on recalcitrant nations and by dangling the promise of “most favored nation” trading status before countries on the periphery of the liberal-democratic world, Trump appears willing and eager to use the threat of tariffs to coerce other countries into bending to our will and serving our national interests, narrowly construed.
That needs to be seen for what it is — a reversion to an older (some will say archaic) style of statecraft, one that takes its cues not from universal-humanitarian moral principles, international law, or the expectations of the liberal institutions the United States created in the aftermath of the Second World War. It takes its cues, instead, from whatever benefits the United States, full stop.