ANALYSIS: There’s no clear strategy behind Trump’s tariffs
These are very strange days in Washington.
The White House is holding productive talks with a delegation from North Korea, on the same day it announced crippling tariffs on trade with its closest allies.
Even stranger, the U.S. insists its retaliatory measures are no big deal at all.
“They’re blips on the radar screen,” said U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on CNBC. “I don’t think they change the fundamentals of relationships.”
WATCH: Wilbur Ross says countries ‘will get over’ steel tariffs ‘in due course’
Canada responded to that “blip” with what it termed the strongest trade action it has taken in the post-war era, amounting to $16.6 billion in tariffs.
Mexico and the European Union quickly followed suit, while back at home, President Donald Trump faced swift blow-back.
“This is dumb,” said Republican Senator Ben Sasse. “Europe, Canada, and Mexico are not China, and you don’t treat allies the same way you treat opponents.”
But Trump seems to relish the fight. After promising tariffs months ago, then granting a temporary exemption, the American president is back in a protectionist mood.
No more Mr. Nice Guy, especially not when NAFTA renegotiations don’t seem to be going anywhere fast.
WATCH: anada retaliates after Trump initiates global trade war
After all, how can you claim to be the king of the deal, when no deal is getting done?
Trump sees those tariffs as leverage — a sword of Damocles hanging over Canada and Mexico at a critical time.
This might also be the thing that causes NAFTA to fall apart, which Trump has made perfectly clear he’s okay with.
“I think it’s pretty clear that the hope of modernizing NAFTA anytime soon is gone,” said Maryscott Greenwood of the Canadian American Business Council.
The Trump administration seems to be betting that tariffs could be the kind of shock to the system needed to reach the deal it wants.
WATCH: Trudeau calls new tariffs on steel, aluminum ‘totally unacceptable’
“It’s pretty clear the president is looking for maximum leverage in trade negotiations, but I think it’s misguided because he’s got plenty of leverage now,” Greenwood said.
Or maybe he’s just looking for an excuse to walk away from the table. It’s simply impossible to know.
By now, none of this should be a surprise. Trump has spent a lot of time talking about how every deal signed by America is a raw deal for Americans. In his view it doesn’t matter if it’s the Paris climate change accord, the TPP or NAFTA. It’s bad, bad, bad.
WATCH: Trump brags about lying to Trudeau about trade
But there are real consequences for everyone involved.
Analysts have argued that the steel and aluminum tariffs alone will cost the U.S. economy 146,000 jobs. That’s five jobs lost in industries that produce things using metal, for every one job gained directly in metal production.
Something doesn’t add up, but maybe that’s the point. Trump seems to thrive on unpredictability and inconsistency, even if there’s no real end-game.
Against all odds, he seems to be headed toward a sit down with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, which would have seemed improbable for any other American President.
Now he’s trying to renegotiate the fundamentals of the global trade system without any transparency surrounding his motives.
Imagine trying to do business in that kind of environment?
WATCH: European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker says it’s a ‘bad day for world trade’
“That is the risk that the United States is not as stable and reliable a place to do business as you once thought,” wrote Neil Irwin, senior economics correspondent for The New York Times.
But the reward for Trump is that he can claim to have made hasty work of tackling the issues few others will touch.
Jackson Proskow is Washington Bureau Chief for Global National.
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