In recent weeks, it has been more difficult than ever to assess and comprehend all the stupid, awful deeds and words of President Donald Trump. The tantrum and chaos of the G7 meeting bleeds into his preposterous accounts of the North Korean summit bleeds into the 14 different stories his administration has offered on the immigrant child-snatching policy. He's tweeting more and, it appears, publicly lying at an even greater rate. Last week always seems a long, long time ago.
So perhaps it's worth pausing for breath and focusing on one story that's somewhat lost in the noise: the Trump administration's steady suffocation of the Appellate Body at the World Trade Organisation. The US government has blanket-banned approval of new appointments to what is essentially world trade's appeals court, and the point is approaching when that court will not be able to operate.
As this Reuters commentary observes:
... the Trump administration’s obstructionist approach to appointments is extremely dangerous. If the appeals court cannot function, all WTO member governments suffer, including the United States. When governments, including the United States, bring WTO complaints, they want them heard and resolved quickly. With the appeals process slowed by a lack of judges, the system will experience long delays (it was already taking much longer than expected, so anything more could be devastating), or even stop working altogether.
It's important to note that – as with the current immigration crackdown – there is a precedent in the Obama administration. Obama's government did ramp up deportations, mostly of undocumented immigrants with criminal records, and it did sometimes prosecute people who arrived at the border, which sometimes did mean removing children. (In 90% of those cases, the defendant had an existing criminal record. Under the Trump zero-tolerance policy, the ratio has turned around so that 90% of the asylum-seekers prosecuted do not have any criminal record.)
Similarly, it was Obama who started playing hardball with Appellate Body appointments, first in 2011 when his administration declined to reappoint its own judge and, more agressively, in 2016 when it vetoed the reappointment of a South Korean judge it didn't like.
But that's not the same thing as what happening now. And while it would be nice to think that Trump and his officials are acting to a strategy for reform of the rules, I don't think that's the case. When have these people ever had a day-after plan?
Moreover, I don't think they want a rules-based world. You don't insult and provoke your economic allies, you don't start trade wars, if that's what you want. I think the bastards just want to blow the whole thing up.
I sometimes think back to secondary school History, and being taught the elements of the post-war consensus: Bretton Woods, GATT and what followed. One teacher also presented us with the United States system of government, with its three branches keeping each other in check, as the democratic ideal. That ideal was always flawed in reality. But seeing that system becoming completely dysfunctional and attempting to spread that chaos and dysfunction to the international community feels visceral. It feels very dangerous.