The problem steels tariffs are supposed to address isn’t receiving much attention – a number of countries are undeniably engaging in unfair and even predatory trade practices in the steel and aluminum sectors which are damaging to their trade partners.
When it comes to steel tariffs, we could be in a trade war — with ourselves.
Protectionism is making a comeback. Governments aren’t just trying to protect traditional sectors such as agriculture,chemicals, and machinery out of concern for lost jobs or domestic economic interests. They’re also intervening in the digital economy and innovation-intensive industries as critical components of national competitiveness.
It would be a guessing game to try to predict what the president might do specifically on trade in 2018. Whatever he decides, there are trends morphing the trading system even as the U.S. Government works to figure out its role in shaping it.
We often talk about “trade wars,” but in the era of a rules-based trading system the phrase typically refers to the use of tariffs or import restrictions to inflict economic harm. It was not always so. Before the GATT and its design for the peaceful settlement of commercial disputes, the use of military power in international economics was commonplace. Take the case of the fight over control of nutmeg production in the 1660s.
Before there was a WTO, the United States developed the tools to take matters into its own hands, using a trade tool known as Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974. It hasn’t been used much since 1995 when the WTO’s dispute settlement procedures came into effect, but the Trump Administration appears to be ready to dust it off to maximize leverage in its trade negotiations with China.
Since 1947, the global trade rules have contained a “national security exception.” WTO members operate on the presumption that their fellow members will exercise the exception rarely and in good faith.
While the 2016 presidential election was not about trade per se, it is clear that new U.S. political leadership and many in the American public would like to look at trade differently – a change in perspective, if you will – including who we do trade deals with, whether trade deficits or surpluses matter, and whether Congress or the Administration is in the driver’s seat on trade.
Helping one set of manufacturing workers can put others in harm’s way. For example, anti-dumping duties on primary metals might help 400,000 metal workers, but it also disadvantages 6 million other manufacturing workers, whose families and communities equally value their jobs.
If the Trump Administration is serious about applying a 20 percent tariff on goods from Mexico to pay for new construction on a wall along the United States and Mexico, it’s the United States that will pay, not Mexico. And the bill could come in as much as 900% above cost.