August 6, 2019 9:25AM

What Is and Isn’t Currency Manipulation

Do you want to know what’s not currency manipulation? The People’s Bank of China observing the value of the yuan plummet as markets respond to Trump’s tariff frenzy is not currency manipulation. 

Do you want to know what is currency manipulation? The president of the United States imploring the Federal Reserve chairman to lower interest rates for the distinct purpose of reducing the value of the dollar is currency manipulation.

For elaboration, please read my article on Forbes: Trump and Bipartisan Majority in Congress Complicit in Chinese Currency Manipulation Canard.


May 24, 2019 8:03AM

Memorial Day Thoughts

Benjamin Franklin said, “There never was a good war or a bad peace.” Given Franklin’s leadership in the struggle for American independence, we can infer that he did not think that there never was a war that was necessary, or a war that was worth its cost. But he reminds us that even necessary wars have terrible costs.

I thought about Franklin when I read an eloquent column on the meaning of Memorial Day by the novelist Mark Helprin, who is also a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute. He lamented:

Though if by and large we ignore the debt we owe to those who fell at Saratoga, Antietam, the Marne, the Pointe du Hoc, and a thousand other places and more, our lives and everything we value are the ledger in which it is indelibly recorded.

It’s a worthy sentiment, one heard frequently in Memorial Day addresses, and we do indeed owe our lives and our pursuit of happiness to the freedom that America’s soldiers have sometimes had to defend.

But I can’t help wondering: Have all of America’s wars have been necessary to American freedom? Helprin mentioned the Second Battle of the Marne, the great turning point of World War I and the first battle in which Americans started experiencing the enormous casualties that Europeans had been facing for nearly four years. The problem is that World War I was a catastrophe, a foolish and unnecessary war, a war of European potentates that both England and the United States could have stayed out of but that became indeed a World War, the Great War. In our own country, the war gave us economic planning, conscription, nationalization of the railroads, a sedition act, confiscatory income tax rates, and prohibition. Internationally, World War I and its conclusion led directly to the Bolshevik revolution, the rise of National Socialism, World War II, and the Cold War. World War I was the worst mistake of the 20th century, the mistake that set in motion all the tragedies of the century. The deaths of those who fell at the Marne are all the more tragic when we reflect that they did not in fact serve to protect our lives and all that we value.

Did the wars in Vietnam and Iraq protect American lives and liberties? In 2015 Republican presidential contender Jeb Bush said that discussing whether the Iraq war was a mistake “does a disservice to a lot of people who sacrificed a lot.” It’s understandable that an aspiring commander-in-chief would want to spare the feelings of those who lost a loved one in Iraq. But surely it’s more important that a commander-in-chief ask tough questions about when it’s advisable to go to war, a point voters should keep in mind over the next 18 months.

In my book The Libertarian Mind, I wrote about the effects of war: not just death on a large scale but the destruction of families, businesses, and civil society. And thus:

War cannot be avoided at all costs, but it should be avoided wherever possible. Proposals to involve the United States—or any government—in foreign conflict should be treated with great skepticism….We should understand the consequences of war for our entire social order and thus go to war only when absolutely necessary.

On this weekend we should mourn those who went to war, such as my father, who planned and participated in the liberation of Europe, and his brother who was lost off the coast of Normandy, and we should resolve not to risk American lives in the future except when our vital national interests are at stake.

May 18, 2019 4:35PM

The United States (Probably) Won’t Go to War with Iran

For weeks the Trump administration has been issuing warnings about increased attacks on US forces in Iraq and Syria by Iranian proxies. Recently the administration revealed that it has satellite imagery of what it says are Iranian paramilitary forces loading missiles onto a small boat. In response, the Pentagon recently presented national security adviser John Bolton and Trump’s national security team with an updated plan that would send 120,000 troops to the Middle East if Iran attacks American forces or ramps up its development of nuclear weapons. Though the plans apparently do not include a ground invasion of Iran, what scenarios they might encompass has not yet been revealed. Nor is it entirely clear what sort of Iranian action might trigger a response.

Considering John Bolton’s longstanding calls for a more confrontational approach to Iran and Trump’s desire to squeeze greater concessions from Iran through tougher sanctions and “maximum pressure,” tensions between the United State and Iran are certainly rising. As my colleague John Glaser has pointed out, it would be difficult to design a strategy more likely to lead to “accidental” conflict than the path the Trump administration is pursuing today. Thus, the question on everyone’s mind is: Will there be war? Though the risk is not zero, the smart bet – for now – is that there will not be war.

Though making predictions about complex political outcomes like war is fraught with peril, a reasonable approach is to start by asking two questions. First, how determined is the United States to start, or avoid, a war with Iran? Second, how determined is Iran to start, or avoid, a war with the United States? Though many other factors might be at work, such as what’s at stake for each country, the relative military capabilities of each, and so forth, most of those factors eventually get captured in those two questions. If either country desires war, war is coming. But even if neither seeks war, rising tensions, accidents, and the psychological dispositions of individual leaders could lead to war if both countries don’t take enough steps to avoid it.

So far news reporting suggests that the Trump administration has not yet decided on war, but the signals are certainly mixed. Trump himself has said that “we’re not looking to hurt anybody” and that “I’d like to see them call me” to continue talks. Even Iranian officials don’t think Trump wants war. Speaking on Face the Nation, Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif said “We don’t believe that President Trump wants confrontation.” More generally, given Trump’s historical opposition to military intervention and nation building, it is hard to imagine Trump’s instincts guiding him to launch a war with Iran. After all, during the 2016 campaign Trump called the war in Iraq a horrible mistake, and a regime-change invasion of Iran would be a far bigger challenge.

On the other hand, there are signs that some in the administration clearly prefer a more hawkish approach, especially national security adviser John Bolton, who has been lobbying Pompeo and other officials trying to build support for his views. The administration has also taken several steps to lay the groundwork for war. First, the administration has also made quite a show of sharing intelligence to hype the threat from Iran and its proxies. Second, the administration has called back nonemergency government employees from Iraq, certainly an ominous sign that the country will be too dangerous for Americans in the near future. Finally, the administration has sent some additional firepower to the Middle East while revealing its plans for a massive force deployment. On top of all of this, given Trump’s tendency to change directions without warning, it would be foolish to assume there is no way that Bolton – or other events – couldn’t change Trump’s mind. When asked by reporters if the administration was considering regime change, Trump answered, “We’ll see what happens with Iran. If they do anything, it would be a very bad mistake.” He also told reporters that if the United States did sent troops to the Middle East, “it would be a hell of a lot more” than 120,000.

For Iran’s part, things are also somewhat uncertain but for different reasons. On a purely logical level, Iran cannot possibly seek war with the United States. Regardless of how Iran interprets Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, despite the pain caused by the reimposition of economic sanctions, and in spite of recent American rhetoric, the worst possible outcome for Iran is war. A sustained campaign of American air strikes would be terribly painful; a full-scale invasion would be catastrophic. What remains to be seen, however, is how far Iran will go to avoid war. If the United States is considering war, Iran needs to figure out what to say and do – and what not to say and do – to avoid tipping the American decision toward war.

This is where Iran’s behavior is hard to gauge. The words of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini, on the one hand, lead us to worry less about war. In March he gave a speech in which he called for patience, with a plan to continue complying with the JCPOA and hanging on until 2020 when Trump might lose the election and Iran could restart its relations with the United States.

On the other hand, more recent Iranian actions look more foolish than patient. If Iranian proxies have been planning or carrying out attacks on Americans in Iraq and Syria, and if Iran was in fact responsible for carrying out the attacks on oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, then it appears that Iran is willing to run the risk of giving the Trump administration the necessary excuse to escalate. Likewise, Iranian officials have repeatedly said they do not seek war with the United States, but at times the same officials say things that suggest they might not be trying very hard to prevent war, such as when Iran’s foreign minister Zarif said, "There will be no war because neither we want a war, nor has anyone the idea or illusion that it can confront Iran in the region." Unless Iran believes that the United States has already decided to strike, or believes that the United States has no intention to attacking Iran, this approach is playing with fire and definitely raises the prospects of war.

Based on this analysis, I would spit ball that the current probability that the United States will attack Iran is above zero but well below 50%, let’s call it 25%. On Iran’s side, I rate the current probability that Iran decides to attack the United States directly at 0%, unless Iran determines that an attack by the United States is imminent, at which point Iran might well launch some sort of preemptive strikes at American or allied targets.

Before we decide where to put our money, however, our estimate also needs to take in to account the high level of uncertainty in the analysis and the fact that events have been moving quickly. News reports are often not very reliable guides to the inner workings of the U.S. government, much less what is really going in Iran or elsewhere. As a result, we cannot know just how determined Trump is to avoid war, nor what the Iranians might consider their red lines. And with tensions running high, the risk of accidents and misinterpretation is also high. Just months ago, remember, few people imagined war might be imminent as this point.

Thus, if I were betting today, I would put my money on war not occurring, but I wouldn’t bet too much…

May 9, 2019 5:24PM

Yes, Tariffs on Imports from China Are Taxes (Even When Absorbed by Business!)

Instead of entering what many anticipated would be the home stretch of negotiations to end the nearly yearlong trade war, U.S. tariffs on about $200 billion of imports from China are set to increase from 10 percent to 25 percent tomorrow morning. There is plenty of speculation as to what happened, who’s to blame, whether President Trump is engaging in negotiating tactics described in “The Art of the Deal,” and which economy is better situated to withstand a wider, longer trade war (as if a 10 percent economic contraction means victory if the other economy shrinks by 15 percent).

The most prominent explanation for the abrupt reversal is that U.S. negotiators learned that their Chinese interlocutors were backing away from previous commitments to resolve the forced technology transfer problem, which is one of the most important U.S. objectives in these talks. After mulling that development last weekend, Trump opted for escalation. He also promised that the balance of Chinese goods (another $250 billion of imports not yet tariffed) soon will be hit with rates of 25 percent, as well. In response, Beijing announced it will impose yet-to-be-specified countermeasures.

Interestingly, this week’s developments haven’t completely torpedoed the negotiations. A somewhat smaller (than originally planned) delegation of Chinese officials is in Washington for negotiations slated to begin at 5pm, which gives them exactly 7 hours to sort everything out before Trump’s higher tariffs take effect at the stroke of midnight. Don’t expect a comprehensive deal or even the contours of one to materialize, but with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He making the trip to Washington despite this latest upheaval, there is at least some hope that the actual tariff escalation will be deferred.

It turns out that the fine print in the Federal Register notice announcing the new rates states that products leaving China after 12:01, Friday, May 10, will be subject to the higher tariffs. It takes about two weeks for a cargo ship departing Shanghai to arrive in Long Beach, so negotiators really have seven hours, plus about two weeks, to reach a deal before Customs has to tax U.S. importers at the new, higher tariff rate. Of course, time is much shorter (seven hours plus about twelve hours!) for importers of high-value, fragile, and perishable products, which are typically transported by air.

As of this moment, the United States has punitive tariffs in place on approximately $250 billion of imports from China. Since last July, tariffs of 25 percent have been levied on imports that were valued collectively at about $50 billion in 2017. Nearly all of those goods are intermediate inputs or capital equipment—the purchases of U.S. producers. Trump advisor Peter Navarro was pleased to note at the time that, in selecting the products to target, he and colleagues used a special economic model to help them avoid burdening consumers by focusing on business purchases, as if businesses don’t pass their higher costs onto consumers in the form of higher prices or onto to their shareholders and workers in the form of lower profits. Thanks, Pete!

After Beijing retaliated, the Trump administration imposed 10 percent tariffs on an additional $200 billion of Chinese goods. This time, the majority of targeted products were consumer goods. It is this tranche of products for which tariffs are slated to increase to 25 percent at midnight. Makes one pine for the days when Navarro worried about consumers.

If matters aren’t resolved quickly, the likelihood is very high that all U.S. goods imports from China will be hit with tariffs of 25 percent.  Let me try to put that in some perspective.

In 2017 (before the punitive tariffs were in place), U.S. imports from China totaled $504 billion and duties paid to U.S. Customs amounted to $13.5 billion, which is an average applied tariff rate of 2.68 percent. Last year, when tariffs of 25 percent on $50 billion of Chinese goods were imposed in June and July, and additional tariffs of 10 percent on $200 billion of Chinese goods were imposed in late September, the value of imports from China totaled $543 billion and the duties collected came to $23 billion—an average applied tariff rate of 4.23 percent.  Nearly $10 billion of costs associated with the higher tariffs were imposed on consumers, businesses, shareholders, and employees.

It turns out that for many products Americans purchase from China, demand is fairly price inelastic. In other words, a one percent increase in price generates less than a one percent decline in quantity demanded. Total revenue rises. At least that is the case for broad swaths of products within the range of price increases attributable to the tariffs. Afterall, despite that tariffs, import value rose from $504 to $543 billion in 2018. Maybe there aren’t many substitute sources or the costs of finding substitutes and switching is too high relative to the tariffs.

A 25 percent across-the-board tariff could generate different effects. Demand may be more price elastic for more products at that price range. In other words, we will likely see a decline in import value from China if 25 percent tariffs are imposed. That means that the added costs directly attributable to the tariffs would not be 25 percent of $543 billion (the 2018 value), for example, because the value of imports will be lower. How much lower depends on these elasticities and other factors.  However, 25 percent of $543 billion is not an unreasonable, upper end estimate of the costs to U.S. consumers and businesses that would be attributable to a 25 percent across the board tariff. That’s $135 billion. That’s a cost of about $400 for every person in the United States. That’s a lot.

August 6, 2018 4:13PM

Weighing Trump’s Trade Apologists

In the wake of the recent “trade agreement” between President Trump and EU Commission President Jean Claude Juncker, we have seen a surfeit of commentary heaping praise on the U.S. president for his strategic trade policy vision and tactical brilliance. Much of that praise has come from people who share the president’s flat-earth view that trade is a zero-sum game played by national governments where the objective is to promote exports, block imports, and secure a trade surplus. Trump throwing U.S. weight around to assert the rule of power over the rule of law is music to this crowd’s ears.

But then there are the apologists who know better; the enablers. They are the bigger problem. In their obsequious tones, they explain how our brilliant president is blazing his own path toward free trade and that the evidence of his success is all around us. If we just disregarded Trump’s nationalist rhetoric, ignored his belief that the trade deficit means the United States is getting ripped off, shoveled away his mounting pile of destructive, protectionist actions, and stopped believing our own lying eyes, we too would rejoice in the greatness of a man who is committed—above all else and above all others—to free trade. 

Engaging in such extreme mental contortions is no easy task, but that’s exactly what an op-ed by tax reform luminaries Steve Moore, Art Laffer, and Steve Forbes in the New York Times last week expects readers to do.

Moore, Laffer, and Forbes (MLF) portray Trump’s “gunboat diplomacy” (you open your markets fully or I’ll close ours!) as strategic genius, akin to Reagan’s nuclear arms race, which broke the Soviets’ backs.  They conclude: “Just as no one ever thought Mr. Reagan would stem nuclear proliferation, if Mr. Trump aggressively pursues this policy, he could build a legacy as the president who expanded world commerce and economic freedom by ending trade barriers rather than erecting them.” Well, yeah, maybe he could.  But so far Trump has only increased trade barriers, more are coming, and there are no negotiations underway—with anyone—aimed at lowering tariffs or other barriers to trade.  But just close your eyes and imagine.

MLF make the following claim:

President Trump won a victory for freer trade last week when he and the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, agreed to find ways to lower tariffs and other barriers to each other’s exports. The outlines of the deal are still sketchy, but it calls for the Europeans to buy more American petroleum, soybeans and manufactured goods and for Mr. Trump to reduce his auto and steel tariffs. We were particularly heartened that Mr. Trump and the Europeans now have a handshake agreement to aim for zero tariffs on both sides of the Atlantic.

The only accurate part of this paragraph is that “the outlines of the deal are still sketchy.” As I described last week, nothing was agreed at that meeting except that new tariffs would not be imposed for the time being. In his Rose Garden statement after meeting with Juncker, Trump said they had agreed to “work together toward zero tariffs, zero non-tariff barriers, and zero subsidies on non-auto industrial goods (my emphasis).” But there is no timetable and if there were, those discussions would exclude agricultural products, natural resources, services, and—well—automobiles and parts, which together constitute a big chunk of transatlantic trade.

Instead of moving us in the direction of lower tariffs and broader trade liberalization, a more accurate interpretation of the meeting is that Trump made clear that he is digging in for a trade war of attrition with China and that he fully expects Juncker to have his back.  The plan includes such banana republic tactics as buying the quiet of Trump’s trade war casualties ($12 billion for farmers and likely more to come for manufacturers) and compelling the EU (and other trade partners) to purchase more U.S. soy, natural gas, and other products previously destined for China, lest the steel and aluminum tariffs remain in place, and auto tariffs follow—perhaps as early as October.  Considering that the EU will have a tough time absorbing much of the U.S. supply rendered “excess” by Trump’s tariffs and the retaliation they incited, it is only a matter of time before Trump loses patience and transatlantic discord starts boiling again.


This was Mr. Trump’s idea. The night before the agreement, he proposed in a tweet that “Both the U.S. and the E.U. drop all Tariffs, Barriers and Subsidies! That would finally be called Free Market and Fair Trade!” Amen.

Of course, zero trade barriers would be great. But Trump’s idea? Hardly. In 2002, in the Doha Round, the Bush administration put forward a far more ambitious proposal for zero tariffs on industrial goods for all countries by 2015. More recently, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations included proposals to eliminate tariffs, non-tariff barriers, and subsidies. Neither of those efforts was successful, but the idea has been in play since well before Trump came to town and is not especially radical.


This is a winning strategy that we’ve long endorsed with our friends at the White House because it is fully consistent with what Mr. Trump has often told us: his threat of tariffs is a negotiating tactic to get to lower trade barriers and a “level playing field.”

I’m not sure where MLF have been lately, but they seem to have overlooked the fact that the president is not only “threatening” tariffs. He has already imposed them on $100 billion of imports from Europe, Canada, Mexico, Japan, China, and most of the rest of the world. In the next week or so, another $16 billion of imports from China are likely to be hit, and another $200 billion could be subject to 25 percent duties by as early as September.

Last week, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross wondered why there was so much handwringing over the matter of assessing 25 percent tariffs on another $200 billion of Chinese goods: “Fifty billion dollars a year on an $18 trillion or so economy is three-tenths of one percent. It's not something that's going to be cataclysmic.” Well, it might not be immediately cataclysmic, but a more relevant comparison is that the total value of all duties collected by U.S. Customs in 2017 was just $33 billion. Only in a George Orwell novel could this beefing up of duty collection be called free trade.


The next step should be to extend this zero tariff offer to other key allies, including Britain, Canada, Mexico and South Korea.

Again, this is willful ignorance, right?  Anyone who writes about trade in the New York Times has to know that nearly all tariffs between the United States and Canada and between the United States and Mexico are already zero today under the NAFTA, and that the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement includes a roadmap to get us almost all the way there in a decade. One major exception is Trump’s insistence on preserving the 25 percent U.S. tariff on pick-up trucks until the year 2041.


If Mr. Trump’s goal is‎ more jobs and higher wages, America comes out the big winner under the zero tariff scenario. Most of our major trading partners have higher tariffs than we do. A study by the president’s Council of Economic Advisers calculates that the average American tariff is 3.5 percent, while the average European Union rate is 5 percent, China’s is nearly 10 percent and the world average is around 10 percent. On a level playing field, American companies can compete with anyone, and our exporters will gain advantage if trade barriers are abolished.

Actually, what this tells us is that the U.S. government has been better to American businesses and households than the governments of China and the EU have been to their own domestic entities. Trump’s tack amounts to his threatening to reduce the freedoms of Americans unless and until the other governments allow their citizens to be freer. So much for America first.

Moreover, jobs and wages are linked to the performance of businesses. American workers benefit, generally, when their employers are profitable. Profits are maximized by maximizing revenues and minimizing costs.

Generally speaking, U.S. export revenues could be higher if U.S. exporters faced lower barriers abroad. But import tariffs don’t compensate for those foreign barriers. They exacerbate the problem because half of the value of U.S. imports are inputs to U.S. production and tariffs raise their costs. Threatening to raise the cost of production on U.S. businesses (and the cost of living for U.S. households) unless foreign governments reduce their own tariffs makes no economic or business sense. Higher tariffs abroad and higher tariffs at home conspire to squeeze profits from both ends, and that’s not good for U.S. employment or compensation. This back of the envelope analysis shows how Trump’s tariffs imperil the expected benefits to U.S. manufacturers from the tax reforms, which MLF were instrumental in advancing.

The optimal response to higher foreign tariffs, which work to reduce U.S. business revenues, is to lower our own tariffs, which would reduce U.S. production costs. So not only is the economics wrong, but the strategy hasn’t produced the results that MLF are celebrating. So far China and nearly every country hit with steel and aluminum tariffs has refused to negotiate under duress. What if these governments continue to remain unwilling to submit to Trump’s gunboat diplomacy?  Even if they were inclined to, why would they have any reason to believe that Trump wouldn’t use the same tactics to get more concessions next time? This is a dubious and very dangerous “strategy.”

In any case, the fact that the United States has lower average tariffs than most countries helps explain the relative success of the U.S. economy over the years. The United States remains the world’s top destination for foreign direct investment, and lower tariffs give us an advantage in the competition to attract and retain that investment. One of the arguments for corporate tax reform with which MLF presumably agree is that lower rates would free up profits to be reinvested in the U.S. economy. Lower taxes on imports have the same effect. We didn’t need agreement from Beijing or Brussels to reduce U.S. corporate rates and we certainly don’t need their consent to do the same for tariffs.


The alternative is higher tariffs on steel, aluminum, autos and hundreds of products imported from other countries, particularly China. Those actions have led to retaliatory tariffs imposed on products grown or manufactured in America. This has hurt farmers, the stock market and economic growth.

It’s difficult to fathom that MLF consider higher U.S. tariffs on these inputs and consumer goods to be leverage. Those U.S. tariffs are hurting the economy and threatening to negate the benefits of the tax reform they helped achieve. Those enduring costs, as well as the retaliation impacting U.S. farmers and others are what Trump’s trade policies have wrought.


A no-tariffs trade strategy would also allow the United States to seize the moral high ground in the debate. Mr. Trump would be transformed from the evil disrupter of international commerce to a potential savior — just as 30 years ago Mr. Reagan’s international image changed from superhawk to peacemaker almost overnight.

After insulting and bullying U.S. trade partners, imposing enormous costs on the global economy, fomenting profound business uncertainty and diplomatic angst, and snuffing out any remaining fumes of good will toward his administration, it is unlikely that President Trump would ever be considered anything more sparing than an evil disrupter. But in the final analysis, it is apparent that the intended audience for the MLF op-ed is none other than President Trump himself. 

The last few paragraphs make clear that the authors—all Trump advisors—are trying to encourage the president to end up on the right side of history. For that they deserve some credit. But they still lose more points for excusing the president’s numerous transgressions, giving intellectual cover to mercantilists and nationalists who believe the United States shouldn’t be constrained by the trade rules, and for supposing that Trump would ever read the New York Times.

July 30, 2018 7:08PM

Why All Went Quiet on the Western Trade Front

Although many hailed last week’s “trade agreement” between President Trump and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker as an important achievement, it included no firm commitments to reduce tariffs, non-tariff barriers, or subsidies—or to do anything for that matter. The only agreement of substance was that new tariffs would not be imposed, while Washington and Brussels negotiated longer-term solutions to problems both real and imagined.

Those hungering for some good trade news might call that progress, but the only new tariffs that were under consideration (outside the exclusive domain of the president’s head) were those related to the Commerce Department’s investigation into the national security implications of automobile and auto parts imports. Of course, that investigation is still proceeding and there’s no reason to think Trump won’t leverage the threat of imposing auto tariffs to bend the outcome of those EU negotiations in his favor.

So what does Trump want? Trump seems committed to prosecuting a trade war with China and he expects the EU to have his back in that fight. Trump’s tariffs on $34 billion of Chinese products are scheduled to expand to $50 billion in early August and potentially to $250 billion in September. In a recent CNBC interview, Trump even threatened to subject all Chinese goods—more than $500 billion worth of imports in 2017—to additional tariffs.

For the first $34 billion, China has retaliated in kind, targeting mostly agricultural, aquaculture, and meat products. Beijing has pledged to go tit-for-tat throughout, even though its retaliation would have to take other forms—such as penalizing U.S. multinationals operating in China—because annual U.S. exports to China are in the neighborhood of only $130 billion.

The only real factor constraining Trump's trade war is the potential that workers in red states will abandon the cause and turn on him. But so far, even as domestic production and employment are threatened as a consequence of the tariffs and the retaliation, Trump’s base still seems to be supporting his unorthodox, zero-sum approach to trade. Last month, a worker at Wisconsin’s Harley-Davidson facility, which will be downsizing as the company shifts production to Europe as a result of the EU’s retaliatory tariffs, said of Trump: “He wouldn’t do it unless it needed to be done, he’s a very smart businessman.” That worker and many others agree that the United States should be throwing its weight around to obtain a larger slice of the pie—even if that process ends up reducing the overall size of the pie.

In a effort to fortify that support, last week the administration authorized $12 billion of emergency relief for U.S. farmers caught in China’s retaliatory fire. Plans for financial relief for other industries similarly imperiled by retaliation are likely in the works and Trump expects the EU to do its part by picking up the slack and purchasing more U.S. soya, natural gas, and other commodities and manufactures previously destined for China. 

That may seem presumptuous, given that Trump has hit Europe with steel and aluminum tariffs, threatens her with auto tariffs, and called Europe a foe on the eve of his Helsinki meeting with Putin. Why would the EU oblige? That would seem to only encourage more of Trump’s passive-aggressive behavior.

Well, first, the EU wants to avoid the auto tariffs, which threaten the global auto market and, second, it shares many of the same concerns about China’s trade practices. But there’s only so much Europe can do to absorb excess U.S. supply. Will Trump insist that Germany cancel its gas contracts with Russia?  That would be an interesting twist. Will it be enough? Or will Trump deem the EU ungrateful and kill the auto trade?

The best we can hope for, I think, is that Trump comes to realize that if he wants to apply effective pressure on Beijing to abandon its most objectionable policies and to open its markets without onerous conditions, he will need the support—not the ire—of the governments of the EU, Japan, Korea, Canada, and Mexico to compel China to play by the rules. That means ditching the steel and aluminum tariffs and making nice. Then, maybe Trump will recommit the United States to abiding by those rules, too.



July 2, 2018 4:29PM

Arms Sales: Pouring Gas on the Fires of Conflict

Do arms sales cause war? Or do wars cause arms sales? Critics of arms sales often argue that selling weapons abroad fuels conflict. And indeed, one can point to one or more sides using American weapons in many recent conflicts including Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. Skeptics argue, on the other hand, that weapons don’t start the fire and that conflicts would arise whether or arms exporters like the United States sell weapons abroad.

The debate has important implications for foreign policy. If selling or transferring weapons abroad makes conflict more likely, or intensifies conflicts already in process, then the United States should rethink its long-held policy of selling weapons to pretty much any nation that wants them. If, on the other hand, arms sales have no impact on conflict or make conflict less likely, then the Trump administration’s intention of expanding arms sales should be seen as a positive move. 

As it turns out, several academic studies have looked at this question. The primary conclusion of these works is that although arms sales do not create conflicts out of thin air, they do make conflict more likely when the conditions for conflict are already present.

The basic logic behind this conclusion is fairly straightforward and has been noted in the academic literature for some time. In a 1998 article, “Arms Transfer Dependence and Foreign Policy Conflict,” David Kinsella argues that states that enjoy a steady flow of arms – especially from multiple countries – tend to pursue more aggressive foreign policies. The increase in the recipient’s military capability makes victory in a potential conflict more likely, which in turn raises the likelihood that the state will start disputes, demand concessions from its neighbors in those disputes, and to escalate to conflict if negotiations fail to produce the desired outcome. Using case studies from Israel, Egypt, Syria, Iran, Iraq, India, Pakistan, Ethiopia, and Somalia Kinsella finds that, when a country has more than one weapons supplier, arms sales drastically increase the chances of conflict.

In their 2002 article, “The Arms Trade and the Incidence of Political Violence in Sub-Saharan Africa, 1967-97,” Cassady Craft and Joseph Smaldone identify another mechanism by which arms sales can fuel conflict. They find that autocratic governments importing weapons are more likely to use those weapons to oppress/mistreat/kill their own citizens since they now have a greater coercive capability.

But despite the straightforward logic behind the arms sales/conflict connection, most work on the topic to date has relied on case studies, which are wonderful for highlighting potential causal mechanisms but not much use for establishing whether those mechanisms hold across the time and space. Until recently there had not been any work using statistical methods that would allow scholars to state with confidence which direction the causal mechanism actually flows – that is, do arms sales precede conflict or do impending conflicts lead to increased arms sales? Happily, the most recent article on arms sales by Oliver Pamp and his colleagues in the January 2018 issue of the Journal of Peace Research entitled, “The Build-Up of Coercive Capacities: Arms Imports and the Outbreak of Violent Intrastate Conflict,” uses a simultaneous equations model to overcome this problem. Looking at the relationship between arms sales and the outbreak of civil conflicts, the authors confirm the general thrust of previous research, concluding that:

“…while arms imports are not a genuine cause of intrastate conflicts, they significantly increase the probability of an onset in countries where conditions are notoriously conducive to conflict. In such situations, arms are not an effective deterrent but rather spark conflict escalation.”

This new confidence in the arms sales/conflict connection should compel serious revision to American arms sales policies. Since 2002 the United States has sold over $286 billion dollars of weapons to 167 countries. These exports have gone to numerous countries where the conditions were or remain ripe for conflict. U.S. arms transfers to an unstable Iraq preceded the emergence of the Islamic State, but wound up helping amplify the Islamic State’s military capability when it took vast quantities of American weapons from defeated Iraqi army units. U.S. arms sales over the past decade also helped prepare Saudi Arabia to launch its disastrous intervention in Yemen and enabled the Nigerian government to unleash more effective violence on its own citizens, just to list a few examples.

Academic research often gets a bad rap in policy making circles. In the case of arms sales and arms transfers, however, the scholarly literature has correctly pointed out the serious risks involved. If the United States is serious about preventing conflict and managing regional stability in trouble spots around the globe, it would do well to stop pouring gas on the fire.

This blog post was written with help from Jordan Cohen, a Ph.D. student in political science at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.