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Passive aggressive trade wars: How Trump is punishing his allies

Image Credit: Matt A.J. (Flickr: Creative Commons)

National security is a political bipartisan issue that both sides of the fence often agree on. United States (US) President Donald Trump, hoping to utilise this support to drive home steel and aluminium tariffs on some of the closest US allies, has received mixed support from Republicans and Democrats, as well as fiery responses from those targeted by the tariffs. The European Union (EU), Canada, and Mexico all pledging to impose tariffs on US exports in response.

Trump campaigned on an American First promise wearing a ‘Make America Great Again’ cap while championing the rights of Middle America. This has manifested into attempts to renegotiate existing trade agreements, and to reshape US relations in the image of his unique and sometimes bizarre views on international relations.

Trump has sought to deliver on election promises, looking to save manufacturing and industry jobs in the heart of his support base. The Trump administration announced tariffs on $50 billion worth of Chinese goods, voicing his displeasure over Chinese trade practices and causing alarm over the possibility of a Sino-US trade war.

As economic and strategic rivals, Trump can argue for the US to seek a competitive edge against China despite the cost a trade war can have on consumers and industry. However, it is unclear what Trump hopes to gain from tariffs on Canada, Mexico, and the EU.

The reasoning lies in Trump’s reactionary personality and his self-perception. Trump turns his multiple grievances about international actors, policies, and institutions into punitive actions designed to extract a better deal for the US, in this instance from close strategic US allies.

Despite US and Canada sharing collective responsibility for North American security through the North American Aerospace Defense Command and the Permanent Joint Board on Defense, Trump has still labelled Canadian exports of aluminium and steel as threats to US national security.

Trump has criticised the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and signalled out Canada’s own protectionist strategies, stating: 'Canada does not treat us right in terms of farming and crossing the borders, they’ll either treat us right or we’ll have to do business a little bit — really differently.'

Canadian President Justin Trudeau and Donald Trump have little in common morally and politically. Trudeau has taken a very different approach to immigration and sees multilateralism as essential. In contrast, young leader French President Emmanuel Macron wooed Trump, sharing similar views on how to address international security issues, the media, and each’s desire for more executive power. Trump views Trudeau's differing political views as a passive threat to a Trump America.

Despite warm relations between Macron and Trump, the former could not convince Trump of the significance of multilateralism and free trade as Trump has repeatedly questioned the usefulness of the EU, referring to North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) as 'obsolete' and arguing that they should pay more for US protection and criticising repeatedly EU refugee policies and related security threats.

Trump largely views the 70-year alliance as an expensive relationship, not worthy of the price tag. Why should the US pick up the bill for EU policies that are irreconcilable to Trump — as Germany lets a million refugees in, Trump begins work on a Mexican border wall.

Trump’s issues with Mexico are thematic, namely a lack of cooperation from Mexico to stem the flow of Latin American immigrants, a bad deal on NAFTA, and Mexican refusal to pay for the border wall. Trump’s earlier promise that 'Mexico will pay for the wall, one way or another' is coming to fruition as a developing Mexico is inevitably squeezed.

Trump’s view of the world is simple, if you are going to enact policies that don’t align with his worldview you will pay, either outright or passively through other measures. Trump views US alliances as expensive, as costing the US too much to provide security for its partners that do not in return, compensate enough politically or monetarily.

Trump champions the executive power and the powerful, and although he champions America First policies he does not respect other state’s sovereignty and policies if they rely on the US — saving his kinder words and admiration for totalitarian regimes.

The tariffs Trump intends to apply set a dangerous precedent for a rise in protectionism and have already led to retributive tariffs inevitably costing the US economy. Not only this, Trump's desire to focus on the differences and perceived grievances between him and close US allies is not strategically sound. He will continue to risk allies losing confidence in US global leadership, if he does not learn the significance allies of all shapes and sizes play in the regional and international order.

Matthew Wilson is an International Relations Master's student with a strong interest in national security and strategic studies.

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