“Trade wars are good, and easy to win,” Donald Trump declared this spring. He may soon find out whether he was right. On Thursday his administration launched a multi-front assault on allies and renewed its threatened offensive against China. What constitutes “winning” is hard to say when the aims are so muddled and diffuse. But it may prove good for him, playing well to his base. The imposition of tariffs on steel and aluminium imports upholds a campaign promise, as well as his inaugural pledge that “it’s going to be only America first”.
All US presidents think first of the interests of Americans; they would not gain or retain the office otherwise. Yet rarely have these been construed so crudely. Most have realised that the country gains from international cooperation and a rules-based order which it did most to shape. Not so Mr Trump. But since he seems to regard his position as a performance instead of a job, outcomes are almost irrelevant.
That his message has resonated so strongly reflects the profound failure of the existing economic system to deliver for ordinary Americans. Globalisation made some rich and many enjoyed cheap consumer goods. Others saw their jobs and communities disappear. Free trade comes at a cost – as the Chinese clearly agree, given some of their own practices. Yet Mr Trump’s medicine will not cure the patient, and may well cause further damage. He is a snake oil salesman, not a physician.
The tariffs on Mexico and Canada are probably in part regarded as leverage in Nafta talks, although they seem more likely to derail a deal than achieve one. Like those on the EU, they may also be a warning to China:…