Monday 18 November 2019

Trump’s trade tariffs could hit home, with major US job losses

US President Donald Trump, Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis, and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen Joseph Dunford, display their feelings at Arlington National Cemetery last week. Photo: AP/Evan Vucci
US President Donald Trump, Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis, and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen Joseph Dunford, display their feelings at Arlington National Cemetery last week. Photo: AP/Evan Vucci

Fergal Keane

The age of Trump began with a clarion call to make America "great again". Greatness was defined, insofar as there was any definition, as a combination of economic strength and sufficient military might to smite any enemies while avoiding messy foreign entanglements.

It was not a political philosophy but a muddle of impulses, instincts and prejudices, some with very deep roots in the history of the Republic. The difference is that now the politics of America first - and often alone - are pulsing out of the Oval Office.

Isolationist instincts of one sort or another have fizzed and buzzed through American political thought since the foundation of the nation. In the words of George Washington: "Europe has a set of primary interests, which to us have none, or a very remote relation."

The difference was that these days the politics of America first and alone appear to have taken over the Oval Office.

That would be frightening if Trump was an ideologue. Or if he was entirely stupid.

Despite the reported words of former cabinet members, he is neither a 'moron' nor an 'idiot', though doubtless he gave them moments of frustration when such phrases must have sprung easily from their lips.

Trump knows that absolute isolationism is not possible now any more than it was when Fr Charles Coughlin and his fanatical supporters campaigned to keep America out of World War II.

What he envisages is a world in which American power is not only pre-eminent but armoured in bellicosity. There is no Trump doctrine to be embedded; there is a Trump brand to be promoted. If there are going to be big deals, he wants them to be his deals.

International treaties - like his proposed North Korea plan - are like massive real-estate deals. A nuclear-free Korean peninsula is the political equivalent of dozens of Trump towers. This excites the President. It gives him focus.

In order to achieve his aims he is willing to be a political wrecking ball. In the world of Trump, international treaties and long-standing alliances are made to be broken. History, memory are meaningless in the fizzing world of the deal.

At least part of his muscularity in foreign policy is based on a conviction - shared by many on the American right - that America has offered protection to the Europeans too cheaply for too long. Anyway Europeans and the rest of the liberal west may whine about climate change and the Iran deal, but what can they do to stop him?

A significant matter of jobs may be about to force a more resolute reaction from the western allies. More than abandoning the Paris Climate Change Accord or the Iran Nuclear Deal, the imposition of trade tariffs this week on Europe, Canada and Mexico by the President risks a generational rift between the United States and those who have traditionally shared its values and broad security aims.

Even Britain, normally so cautious in its criticism of the White House, condemned the proposals as "patently absurd". The Trade Secretary, Dr Liam Fox, warned of the danger of ending up "in a tit-for-tat trade dispute with our closest allies".

Economic wars are notoriously dangerous weapons of international politics. Dangerous to those who first wield the weapon as well as to those on the receiving end.

Consider our own unhappy experience during the 1930s when Britain imposed 20pc tariffs on Irish goods in the dispute with de Valera over the payment of land annuities.

These were the loans given to Irish farmers under colonial rule to enable them to buy land from the landlords. Dev refused to pay on the basis that Irish farmers should not have to pay for land taken under conquest by the English centuries before. But the economic costs were immense, deepening unemployment with many tens of thousands across the water to England for work.

According to the respected think-tank the Trade Partnership, up to half a million American jobs could be lost through retaliatory sanctions by the EU, Canada and Mexico. Eighteen jobs lost for every one gained. The President will dismiss this and continue to promise American greatness even as senior Republicans in Congress warn loudly of the dangers. This is the kind of stuff that bothers them: lost jobs mean lost congressional seats with the mid-term elections already looking bleak for the GOP.

As with North Korea, the President is betting on a big win. In his blunt way Trump is asking if the US really needs any so called 'special relationships' with anybody?

He correctly reckons that security cooperation benefits the Europeans and Canadians as much as America. They will not risk that by withdrawing from cooperation in a fury over tariffs.

America's traditional allies are floundering. Europe can talk and even act tough on tariffs, but the EU has plenty of troubles of its own, even if the Italian political crisis has been averted for now. The Eurozone crisis and Brexit expose the deep strains within a union that lacks economic and political coherence.

The more sanguine America watchers in London, Brussels and Ottawa still believe that Trump is a blip. They console themselves with hopes of an impeachment, even summoning enthusiasm for a Mike Pence presidency. He's very right of centre yes, they say, but a rationalist, a man of the old political establishment.

I wouldn't be so sure. About the departure of Trump any time soon, about the foreign policy rationalism of Mike Pence, or the idea that the politics of the present are an unreflective spasm of anger that will in good time burn out.

We need to be willing to imagine that Trump will get his North Korea deal, that he achieves at least a draw on tariffs and that the special prosecutor, Robert Mueller, doesn't find the smoking gun in the Russia investigation that would provide grounds for impeachment.

The latest boost in employment figures will give the President confidence to forge ahead.

The possibility of a two-term Trump followed by President Pence may induce despair among America's old allies. But it is a scenario worth preparing for.

Fergal Keane is a BBC Special Correspondent

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