The world is too complex and fragile to be beholden to the whims of an idiot.
Leading up to election day, I decided to do a few pieces about water rights and the Colorado River. It was meant to show the huge consequences of electoral politics, and the millions of decisions that trickle down from whomever wins. It isn’t that I expect the President to say “Arizona, you get 1.5 million acres more of water every year”, but that staffing matters. And that starts with who is at the top.
At the time, I expected Hillary to win, even as I feared for the literal worst. I couldn’t really imagine talking about water rights or anything like that in the age of Trump. It seems impossible, and given the violence he is already doing to our norms and our traditions, it is staggering that the issues we face will be handled by a government with him at its gilded head.
I was reminded of this again over the weekend, when, following the death of Fidel Castro, the President Elect of the United States of America (and I can’t believe I just typed that) tweeted (and I can’t believe I just typed that) an offhanded new Cuba policy.
If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate deal.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 28, 2016
This is astonishing. As Eric Levitz at NYMag points out, first of all, there is no one “deal”, but a “series of incremental measures”. It is clear Trump doesn’t know that. I doubt he knows any of the details of this “deal”, or what it entails for Cuba or America. It is clear he doesn’t know the enormous amount of work that went into it. He just knows that people say “deal”, so he has to say he can get a better one.
The Cuba policy is an enormous triumph. Remember, Fidel Castro set up his government almost entirely around opposition to the US. If that wasn’t the primary reason, the US became his main enemy and his focal point in international relations. Our new relations are an enormous concession, and, if you want to boil it down to the language of zero-sum international relations (which I don’t), a “win” for the US. To see it as anything else is to be blinded by Obama hatred and red-baiting. Trump has both of those, and the compulsive need to pretend he is the only one who knows how to negotiate.
That’s what his tweet there is: his opening negotiation salvo. It’s declaring insanity and assuming the other side will blink. It can work in business, as he has shown, in that he is excellent at getting people to invest in him even though he’s been a complete business failure time and time again. And it can work, in some ways, in international relations, though it is extremely dangerous. There’s more to talk about that technique in the coming months.
But blasting out a half-thought tweet is not a strategy. It’s madness. He’s the President-Elect, and he is still behaving this way. Is this an official policy? Are we going to have to sit down again with the Cubans to get new “concessions”? Will the Latin American desk at the State Department have to assure regional partners that we aren’t going back, or will they have to re-evaluate relationships? How will the people in the trenches deal with this? What the hell is our policy?
I want to repeat that: he sent out an ill-informed tweet based on his pathetic machismo that could alter a hemisphere-changing policy brought to life over many years and partly by the efforts of the Pope. A tweet. That’s the kind of man we’ve sort-of elected.
So that brings us back to water, and the United States and Mexico. For nearly 100 years, the US has taken more than its share of water from the Colorado, leaving Mexico with the barest minimum, and that often polluted or too salinated. There have been treaties to try to rectify that, big diversion plans, interstate squabbling (based mostly around the Arizona/California rivalry), and more, all backdropped by the fundamental need for water and a cruel, violent history between the two countries.
But there has been a lot of success! And now no one knows what is going to happen. A gripping weekend article in Politico, which does great work away from the horse race, discusses how negotiators on both sides are rushing to get a treaty done that will create an equitable plan for water sharing so that Mexico gets the amount due to it while still preserving old rights in the United States. It is a vastly complex process and a heroic undertaking, and now they are scrambling to get it done while Barack Obama is in office.
There are a few reasons for the scramble.
First and foremost, Donald Trump built his campaign around antipathy toward Mexico and Mexicans. Racism was the sturdy scaffolding around the edifice of his run, and nowhere was that directed more vociferously than south of the border. We might be entering a dark new time in US/Mexico relations, which could negate the work that negotiators have done to try to preserve water while not stifling growth and actually creating a cleaner river that restores ancient wetlands. It is a potential triumph, a model of its kind, and now it is in deep jeopardy.
It goes slightly deeper than racism as well. As John Fleck points out, Trump also ran against NAFTA. Now, I have no truck with that treaty, but one of the auxiliary benefits was a to create a framework for bilateral and multilateral cooperation, the kind that helped lead to the creative water right treaties we’ve enacted over the last 20 years. Who knows what will happen now?
And finally, even deeper than the obscene racism, even deeper than the framework for cooperation, is the magma-level insanity of having a spoiled, impulsive, ignorant manchild in office, who makes decisions, if you can call them that, based entirely around the fulfillment of his own bloated self-image.
That’s the real terror, and it it goes for every policy. Imagine if Trump happens to read that Politico piece. OK, imagine he happens to skim its headline and sees something about water negotiations with Mexico. Is it impossible to imagine him tweeting “Mexico wants our water but refuses to pay for the wall? Disgusting and WEAK. Not a drop until I get us a better deal.”
It’s not even implausible to think so. And then everything hangs in that balance. Years of wildly important, literally world-saving works can be ruined because of one man’s limitless ego and depthless ignorance. That’s what has happened, and I have no idea what can be done to stop it.