What the world has learned from Trump’s trade war.
This is the way the trade war ends. Not with a bang but with empty bombast.
According to multiple news organizations, the U.S. and China are close to a deal that would effectively end trade hostilities. Under the reported deal, America would remove most of the tariffs it imposed last year. China, for its part, would end its retaliatory tariffs, make some changes to its investment and competition policies and direct state enterprises to buy specified amounts of U.S. agricultural and energy products.
The Trump administration will, of course, trumpet the deal as a triumph. In reality, however, it’s much ado about nothing much.
As described, the deal would do little to address real complaints about Chinese policy, which mainly involve China’s systematic expropriation of intellectual property. Nor would it do much to address Donald Trump’s pet although misguided peeve, the imbalance in U.S.-China trade. Basically, Trump will have backed down.
If this is the story, it will repeat what we saw on the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Trump denounced as the “worst trade deal ever made.” In the end, what Trump negotiated — the U.S. Mexico Canada Agreement, or U.S.M.C.A. — was very similar to the previous status quo. Trade experts I know, when not referring to it as the Village People agreement, call it “Nafta 0.8”: fundamentally the same as Nafta, but a bit worse.
Why is the president who famously declared that “trade wars are good, and easy to win” effectively waving the white flag? Mainly because winning turns out not to be easy, at all.
Trump’s beloved stock market hates talk of trade war. There is no broad constituency for protectionism — in fact, public opinion has become much more pro-free trade under Trump. And Chinese retaliation has hit hard at voting blocs Trump depends on, especially in farm states.
Now, agreement with China isn’t a done deal. Trump may also yet open another front in the trade war, against European automobiles. And the Village People agreement awaits congressional approval, and it’s not clear what Trump will do if that isn’t forthcoming.
Still, it looks possible, even likely, that within a few months most though not all of the trade war will have been unwound. So will it all look in retrospect like a passing storm, with few long-term consequences?
As usual, the president makes his predecessors look better.
Suppose you’re the type of smart conservative reluctantly inclined to give Donald Trump a pass for his boorish behavior and ideological heresies because you like the way the economy is going and appreciate the tough tone of his foreign policy, especially when it comes to Islamic fundamentalism.
These last few weeks haven’t exactly validated your faith in the man, have they?
.. The president has abruptly undermined Israel’s security following a phone call with an Islamist strongman in Turkey. So much for the idea, common on the right, that this is the most pro-Israel administration ever.
.. Contrary to the invidious myth that neoconservatives always put Israel first, the reasons for staying in Syria have everything to do with core U.S. interests. Among them: Keeping ISIS beaten, keeping faith with the Kurds, maintaining leverage in Syria and preventing Russia and Iran from consolidating their grip on the Levant.
.. Powers that maintain a reputation as reliable allies and formidable foes tend to enhance their power. Powers that behave as Trump’s America has squander it.
.. But leave that aside and consider the Trump presidency from a purely Israeli standpoint. Are Israelis better off now that the U.S. Embassy is in Jerusalem? Not materially. The move was mostly a matter of symbolism, albeit of an overdue and useful sort. Are Israelis safer from Iran now that the U.S. is no longer in the Iran deal and sanctions are back in force? Only marginally. Sanctions are a tool of strategy, not a strategy unto themselves.
.. What Israel most needs from the U.S. today is what it needed at its birth in 1948: an America committed to defending the liberal-international order against totalitarian enemies, as opposed to one that conducts a purely transactional foreign policy based on the needs of the moment or the whims of a president.
.. From that, everything follows. It means that the U.S. should not
- sell out small nations — whether it was Israel in 1973 or Kuwait in 1990 — for the sake of currying favor with larger ones. It means we should
- resist interloping foreign aggressors, whether it was the
- Soviets in Egypt in the 1960s, or the
- Russians and Iranians in Syria in this decade. It means we should
- oppose militant religious fundamentalism, whether it is
- Wahhabis in Riyadh or Khomeinists in Tehran or Muslim Brothers in Cairo and Ankara. It means we should
- human rights,
- civil liberties, and
- democratic institutions, in that order.
Trump has stood all of this on its head.
He shows no interest in pushing Russia out of Syria. He has neither articulated nor pursued any coherent strategy for pushing Iran out of Syria. He has all but invited Turkey to interfere in Syria. He has done nothing to prevent Iran from continuing to arm Hezbollah. He shows no regard for the Kurds. His fatuous response to Saudi Arabia’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi is that we’re getting a lot of money from the Saudis.
He speaks with no authority on subjects like press freedom or religious liberty because he assails both at home. His still-secret peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians will have the rare effect of uniting Israelis and Palestinians in their rejection of it
.. If you think the gravest immediate threat to Israel is jihadist Hezbollah backed by fundamentalist Iran backed by cynical Russia, the answer is no.
.. If you think the gravest middle-term threat is the continued Islamization of Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan — gradually transforming the country into a technologically competent Sunni version of Iran — the answer is no.
.. If you think that another grave threat to Israel is the inability to preserve at least a vision of a future Palestinian state — one that pursues good governance and peace with its neighbors while rejecting kleptocracy and terrorism — the answer is no.
And if you think that the ultimate long-term threat to Israel is the resurgence of isolationism in the U.S. and a return to the geopolitics of every nation for itself, the answer is more emphatically no.
there has never been a disaster like the G7 meeting that just took place. It could herald the beginning of a trade war, maybe even the collapse of the Western alliance. At the very least it will damage America’s reputation as a reliable ally for decades to come; even if Trump eventually departs the scene in disgrace, the fact that someone like him could come to power in the first place will always be in the back of everyone’s mind.
.. I’m already seeing headlines to the effect that Trump took a belligerent “America first” position, demanding big concessions from our allies, which would have been bad. But the reality was much worse.
.. He didn’t put America first; Russia first would be a better description. And he didn’t demand drastic policy changes from our allies; he demanded that they stop doing bad things they aren’t doing. This wasn’t a tough stance on behalf of American interests, it was a declaration of ignorance and policy insanity.
.. Trump started with a call for readmitting Russia to the group, which makes no sense at all. The truth is that Russia, whose GDP is about the same size as Spain’s and quite a bit smaller than Brazil’s, was always a ringer in what was meant to be a group of major economies. It was brought in for strategic reasons, and kicked out when it invaded Ukraine.
.. There is no possible justification for bringing it back, other than whatever hold Putin has on Trump personally.
.. Then Trump demanded that the other G7 members remove their “ridiculous and unacceptable” tariffs on U.S. goods – which would be hard for them to do, because their actual tariff rates are very low. The European Union, for example, levies an average tariff of only three percent on US goods.
.. Yes, Canada imposes high tariffs on certain dairy products. But it’s hard to make the case that these special cases are any worse than, say, the 25 percent tariff the U.S. still imposes on light trucks.
.. His trade advisers have repeatedly claimed that value-added taxes, which play an important role in many countries, are a form of unfair trade protection. But this is sheer ignorance
.. they’re just a way of implementing a sales tax — which is why they’re legal under the WTO.
.. He may just have been ranting. After all, he goes on and on about other vast evils that don’t exist, like a huge wave of violent crime committed by illegal immigrants (who then voted in the millions for Hillary Clinton.)
Was there any strategy behind Trump’s behavior? Well, it was pretty much exactly what he would have done if he really is Putin’s puppet: yelling at friendly nations about sins they aren’t committing won’t bring back American jobs, but it’s exactly what someone who does want to break up the Western alliance would like to see.
.. Alternatively, maybe he was just acting out because he couldn’t stand having to spend hours with powerful people who will neither flatter him nor bribe him by throwing money at his family businesses – people who, in fact, didn’t try very hard to hide the contempt
.. this was an utter, humiliating debacle. And we all know how Trump responds to humiliation.