Opinion: An economic nationalist bully in the White House takes on global trade | Opinion | DW | 08.03.2018
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Opinion

Opinion: An economic nationalist bully in the White House takes on global trade

Despite a massive global and domestic pushback, US President Donald Trump has imposed broad tariffs on steel and aluminum. Last-minute modifications can't cloak the president's dangerous protectionist stance.

Just days after announcing his plan to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum against numerous countries, the president unilaterally followed through and formally decreed the measure.

Trump exempted America's neighbors Mexico and Canada under the condition that they agree on a deal on NAFTA, and offered negotiations on the planned tariffs to other countries, presumably America's European and Asian allies, based on some vague discussions about security issues. There is a term for that: blackmail.

Slap in the face for allies   

Aside from possibly China and some US adversaries, America's allies and neighbors might be entirely exempt from Trump's tariffs – but it all remains as unclear after Trump's remarks as before. What is clear, however, is that forcing longstanding US allies in Europe and Asia to essentially beg for an exemption is neither appropriate nor magnanimous; rather, it is a slap in the face for Washington's traditional partners like Germany and South Korea. And it may well start a trade showdown.

It also undercuts any remnants of trust or hope America's allies may still have harbored in this president. Because – make no mistake – the argument that punishing Washington's NATO and Asian security partners would somehow advance the country's national security was nonsensical and only a pretext for Trump to get tough on trade and fulfill his campaign promise. 

Read also: Germany, EU hit back at Trump's trade war threat

DW's Michael Knigge

DW's Washington correspondent Michael Knigge

'America First' rears its head

That we have come to this is no surprise, as White House press secretary Sarah Sanders made clear one week ago when asked by a reporter whether Trump had any compunction whatsoever about the move's effects: "This shouldn't come as a surprise to anybody. This is something, frankly, the President has been talking about for decades; certainly something he talked about regularly on the campaign trail." For once, her words reflected reality. Trump actually ran and won on this stance. Remember "America First," anyone?

The idea of shielding US businesses and workers by going after supposedly evil foreigners that rip off defenseless Americans and steal their jobs was not just some part of Trump's platform. He ultimately views everything foreign as either an economic or a criminal threat. His xenophobic stance was on display from the day he announced his run for president and then called Mexicans rapists; it was evident in his trade speech in July 2016 when he clearly spelled out his intent to "use every lawful presidential power" to deal with trade disputes. In Trump's zero-sum-game worldview, deporting undocumented immigrants and curbing legal immigration is one side of the coin; imposing tariffs and exiting trade deals is the other.      

Read also: Trump's tariffs on European cars – a massive own goal?                  

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Bannon's label fits Trump

Trump's former campaign manager and advisor Steve Bannon once called himself an "economic nationalist." That label also fits his former boss. While some other Trump advisors – the adults in the room – at times try to deflect or redirect the playground bully's ill-advised impulses to lash out at others, it doesn't work all the time.

He has also routinely and repeatedly acted on his impulse to punish partners or countries that don't "play fair," whatever that means: For instance when he pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the massive trade agreement Washington had been negotiating with key Asian allies for years, or when he announced an exit from the Paris climate accord despite overwhelming support for the deal from nearly every side. 

Dangerous precedent

Since Trump's deep-seated attitude on this issue was known all along to anyone following his presidency even half-heartedly, shame on us for now being surprised by this. But shame on Congress for not doing its job to have oversight over this White House. Trying to manage a volatile president by either trying to make nice, distract or verbally oppose him is neither a sound nor sustainable political strategy.

If the precedent set by Trump – to use a flimsy national security argument based on a dusted-off legal provision to advance his economic nationalist agenda – is allowed to stand, other countries will follow, thereby undermining internationally agreed-upon trade policy.

Congress must act to curb Trump's powers

Republicans in Congress finally have to own up to the fact that it is simply too dangerous to grant Trump the room to maneuver unilaterally on key issues such as tariffs – not just for the US, but for the world. Instead, they have to curtail his powers to do so, just as they did on Russian sanctions.

Ironically, a law that would do exactly that was introduced by tea party Republican Mike Lee the day of Trump's inauguration: the Global Trade Accountability Act. If Congress fails to pass it or similar legislation, the consequences will be dire.  

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