Trump defended his desire to start a trade war with hikes in steel and aluminum tariffs with the following statement this morning:
When a country (USA) is losing many billions of dollars on trade with virtually every country it does business with, trade wars are good, and easy to win. Example, when we are down $100 billion with a certain country and they get cute, don’t trade anymore-we win big. It’s easy!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 2, 2018
Trump’s grasp of trade is similar to his understanding of how diplomacy works. Both are abysmal, zero-sum views of dealings with other countries. He imagines that the U.S. can “win” by cutting off its nose to spite its face. Trump believes that virtually all deals disadvantage the U.S., and his “solution” to this is to blow them up and declare victory. He thinks that “trade wars are good” for the same reason that he thinks reneging on the nuclear deal is desirable: he doesn’t acknowledge the benefits the U.S. gets and he pretends that the U.S. can somehow magically get everything it wants by taking its ball and going home. Trump doesn’t accept that mutually beneficial exchanges and agreements are possible, and so he looks for ways to sabotage them. Taken to its logical conclusion, Trump’s position is that the U.S. should halt trading with other countries to teach them a lesson and force a change in the balance of trade, but all this would do is ruin many American businesses and drive up prices for the rest of us. This is akin to the early nineteenth-century embargo that the U.S. imposed on itself to “punish” Britain and France.
In the case of these tariffs, the U.S. isn’t going to “win” anything except retaliation from many of our closest allies and higher prices on a range of goods. Whatever merit there might have been in taking a harder line with China on certain issues is canceled out by the harm that this will do to our other major trading partners, who will then be obliged to reciprocate by imposing their own tariffs on our goods.
Perhaps worst of all, Trump has justified the tariff hike by claiming that the imports he is targeting pose a threat to national security, and that has further annoyed our allies:
President Donald Trump’s planned tariffs on steel and aluminum prompted angry responses from U.S. allies around the globe Friday, driving down stock prices and generating warnings of a possible international trade war.
Allies in Asia and Europe lobbied for a change of heart and took issue with Mr. Trump’s invocation of a little-used Cold War-era law that gives presidents broad discretion to curb imports deemed a threat to national security.
Much as he did with the travel ban, Trump is using a spurious national security justification to do something that he wants to do for other reasons. At the same time, he is damaging relationships with major allies whose support the U.S. needs on any number of other issues.
If Trump’s goal was to take pressure off of China and turn the world’s ire on us, he has succeeded.