Trade War And Real War: Confrontation Under The Trump Administration


March seemed to be the month of trade protectionism coming out of the U.S. At the beginning of the month, the U.S. president Donald Trump announced that he plans to introduce tariffs on imports of steel and aluminium going into the U.S., causing apprehension among U.S.’ allies and neighbours. After that announcement, Trump proceeded to announce new tariffs which he claimed were specifically designed to target China, and it was estimated to be around $60 billion USD. These announcements have set off alarms, especially among mainstream analysts and economists, that the world is marching inextricably towards a global trade war that will leave no winners, only losers. While economies, business interests, think tanks, and much of the mainstream media are publishing articles warning against Trump’s tariffs and urging Trump to turn back, the political climate in the United States and Trump’s own personality and his style of leadership is unlikely to allow the United States pulling back from its current course. With the United States turning towards protectionism and blasting its friends and foes alike with its unpredictable and bullish rhetoric, the world may become a more unstable place.

When President Donald Trump came to power in 2017, many analysts and mainstream special interests groups had hoped that, when faced with overwhelming evidence showing the impracticability of many of his proposals, Trump will moderate some of his more outrageous promises and rhetoric. While so far the administration’s actions have not been as terrible as the worst pessimists have feared, the president has marched forward with many of his more controversial promises. Projects such as the Border Wall and renegotiating NAFTA are being carried forward despite the widespread protests they have created. Notwithstanding the obstacles, more than one year into his presidency Trump shows no sign of abandoning this populist and heavily unilateralist approach to governing.

Therefore, despite mounting pleas and evidence, it is unlikely that Trump will reverse course on his tariff policies. This is due to a number of reasons. First and foremost, it appears that Trump genuinely believes what he is doing is right. Despite being self-proclaimed as one of the most successful businessmen in the United States, Trump has shown a lack of a grasp on the complexity and interdependence of the global economy. From the beginning, Trump’s vision of “Making America Great Again” harkens back to a greatly reductionist version of the pre-WWII United States. In this vision, the U.S. is mostly self-sufficient, the power of the state is paramount, and where steel was still the cutting edge technology. America’s neighbours exist in a clearly subordinate position with no pretence of being on equal footing with the U.S.

Trump’s likely conviction that he is right is enforced by Trump’s personality and governing style. The current revolving door of White House officials, who were kicked out for failing to agree with Trump, demonstrate that Trump is not someone who takes criticism well. Even if Trump realized that his belief is wrong, it is unlike him to admit mistakes given his track record of blaming others. Despite other uncertainties, Trump has consistently shown an unwillingness to acknowledge any sort of mistakes on his part. In sum, President Trump’s personality enforces his belief, which means it is unlikely that he will willingly reverse his decision.

Other than Trump, the political climate in the United States is not in favour of international trade, and if anything is just as bullish about a trade war. Having played up the anti-establishment and anti-globalization sentiment in the U.S. voter base; even if he wants to, the Trump administration may find it difficult to escape the situation they have set for themselves. The administration cannot appeal to expert knowledge, whose legitimacy they have undermined during the election campaign in order to climb to the top. Furthermore, just like Trump, much of the American public is focused on national self-sufficiency and security, believing they are the key to national “greatness”. It would appear that a significant proportion of the American public are either ignoring or do not believe in the warnings, of higher costs of living and further economic deterioration should America’s economy become more isolated. With the long history of protectionist tendencies in American policy-making, as well as the tendency to scapegoat international trade for domestic social and economic woes; the American public, just like Donald Trump, is unlikely to agree to a more moderate and less confrontational approach.

Economists fear that Trump’s policies will cause the slow-down of globalization, which in turn will decrease international commerce and cause a global economic depression. International security analysts fear that Trump’s bullish rhetoric and ill-throughout decisions will lead to rising tensions and can potentially spiral into armed conflict. In either case, it is feared that Trump’s actions will lead to the diminishing of the American influence on the global economic and political scene, especially America as a model for other developing countries. It is feared that declining American influence will lead to a more chaotic world. Alternatively, one of America’s rivals may become the next global leader and work towards undermining U.S. interests, whatever they may be. Interestingly enough, in both scenarios, it is framed that the relative decline of America as the global hegemonic is almost synonymous with chaos and a threat to the security of the average citizen living in industrialized liberal countries.

The fear that declining international commerce can lead to armed conflict is not unfounded. Many point to the World Wars as what can happen when international exchange breaks down, replaced by distrust and tensions between the world’s major economies. And like the 1910s, it would then take only one forceful personality, like Kaiser Wilhelm, to set events into motion that would spell catastrophe for millions around the world.

Nevertheless, the American model of globalization and economic management has certainly been in decline since the 2008 Financial Crisis. The Financial Crisis that put an end to the claims of the supposed infallible rationality of market forces. In its place, China and Russia have turned towards more statist approaches to economic management. It has also fundamentally undermined the public’s trust in the old elite and established economic and political institutions. In many ways, Trump and his elk are symptoms of the declining acceptance of the liberal economic model worldwide, rather than its cause, although there is no doubt that the uncertainty and the hostile rhetoric surrounding Trump’s proclamations are making matters worse. Just like Kaiser Wilhelm, Trump’s influence on the global economic and political scene may last for many decades to come.

Hanyu Huang