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.