What do apples, bourbon, pork, cranberries and orange juice have in common with designer blue jeans, Harley-Davidsons, beer kegs, lamps and washing machines? They’re all profitably exported to Canada, the European Union and Mexico from U.S. districts and states where Republications must win in November to keep their majority in the House and the Senate.
They are also subject to “punitive” tariffs imposed (or about to be imposed) by these countries in retaliation against the 10 and 25 percent tariffs the Trump administration imposed, effective June 1, on U.S. aluminum and steel imports from these allies.
Swift retaliation has been politically controversial within Canada, Europe and Mexico. Some trade policy experts advocated handing Trump some negotiated “victory” on steel and aluminum in the hopes that it would appease him. Others encouraged waiting for a decision from the World Trade Organization, which is expected to rule the U.S. tariffs violate international trade law and then formally authorize punitive measures.
Retaliatory tariffs are also economically controversial. Imposing them on U.S. goods makes those goods more expensive to Canadian, European and Mexican consumers. And many of those goods aren’t made in these countries, so there is no protectionist benefit. Worse, retaliation may prompt counter-retaliation by Trump and thus trigger a full-blown trade war.
So why are the Canadian, European and Mexican governments unified in pursuing retaliation that is economically harmful and politically risky?
Their confrontational reaction reflects not just outrage about Trump’s disregard for written and unwritten rules and his willingness to declare long-standing U.S. commitments null and void. There is an increasing sense that Trump is deliberately engaging in threats and blackmail as a negotiating tactic, and that pushing back, even if costly, may be required so as not to encourage more of it.
The assessment that hitting back is necessary indicates these long-standing U.S. trade partners and allies have decided that Trump is “playing” domestic politics without regard for the international political and economic consequences. And the only way to stop it is to hit back where it hurts — in domestic politics.
The president has asserted that reducing U.S. dependence on foreign steel and aluminum is necessary for national security. He had to make such a claim to be able to bypass Congress in imposing these tariffs, but even his own advisors have trouble maintaining a straight face while claiming that importing steel from Canada is a threat to U.S. national security.
The economic rationale is similarly specious: Tariffs on aluminum and steel make those metals more expensive in the United States, and imported aluminum and steel are important inputs for many products that U.S. companies make and export. So the tariffs will actually hurt U.S. exports. Even without any retaliation, Trump’s tariffs are economically self-defeating.
But there is a growing sense among U.S. allies — after the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and from the Iran deal — that reasoning about cost and benefits is largely pointless.
For Trump, improving the U.S. trade position seems far less important than appealing to blue-collar voters with protectionist instincts; doing so offers Trump a chance to break open the traditional Democratic coalition. The effect is to hold U.S. trade policy hostage to domestic political calculations of the current administration, in violation of U.S. trade agreements. It also makes U.S. trade policy unpredictable.
To put a stop to it, Canada, the EU and Mexico appear to be willing now to adopt carefully politically targeted counter-measures, even if it risks a full-blow trade war. Congressional Republicans would do well to drive home to President Trump the dangers of relentlessly conducting domestic politics through foreign policy.
Tim Büthe is an associate research professor of political science and public policy at Duke University. He also holds the chair for international relations at the Hochschule für Politik at the Technical University of Munich, Germany.