A “war of all against all” is how English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes described the natural state that society would be reduced to without the modulating force of government. Hobbes believed that a lack of authority would lead every man to believe that he “has a right to every thing,” and the natural result would be chaos and crippling fear.
Hobbes’ solution was to find an all-powerful sovereign who could enforce a sense of community. He was no fan of the distinct branches of government and the separation of powers that we cherish, but the superior role he envisioned for “mankind” over any “particular man” has been a guiding American value.
And Hobbes had a special concern for the predictability of labor and trade. When there is a “war of all against all” and every person feels entitled to look out for himself and no others, “ … there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea.”
Now, more than 350 years since Hobbes wrote those words in “Leviathan,” America may be on the verge of unraveling decades of carefully crafted and nurtured international relationships that have been the key to our prosperity and global peace.
Last week, in the New York Times article “In Search for Leverage, Trump May Be Undercutting His Own Trade Deals,” Ana Swanson reported that our foreign trading partners now “don’t believe a final deal is truly final.” Donald Trump talks of lifting tariffs and then imposing tariffs, and he threatens to undo agreements on the heels of making agreements.
As a non-rule-based private businessman, Trump used this unpredictability and instability to his advantage. In business, Trump’s handshake was never his bond, and he profited from that, but it is a bad leadership strategy for the president of the United States.
Without trust, some of our trading partners are starting to realign. Japan, Canada and Europe are negotiating with other countries in an effort “to diversify away from the United States.” And some countries are simply slow-walking their business with the United States, figuring that they can drag negotiations out until Trump is gone.
As Mary Lovely, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, told the Times, “This administration’s approach to trade is bully, bully, bully.”
Maryscott Greenwood, chief executive of the Canadian American Business Council, added, “Because he is so unpredictable, you are not sure he’ll stick to anything.”
If you were looking to cut Trump’s grass or fix his car, his reputation for breaking his word should be enough to chase you off. Our trading partners are no different.
Instead of a government policy of “all for one and one for all,” America’s new policy seems to be “one for one and none for all.” And that can never work — in normal life or international trade.
Congress or the voters might realize in time that uncertainty and distrust can only take us backwards. Let’s hope that happens soon enough for us avoid another Hobbesian nugget: “Hell is truth seen too late.”