The unfolding trade spat now risks unleashing a transatlantic trade war that would further add to the already frosty relations between Washington and European capitals.
The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy, published late last year, called for a redoubling of efforts to stave off long-term strategic competitors, especially China and Russia. A crucial component of this strategy is rallying America’s traditional allies and partners against the threat posed by Chinese and Russian expansionism. A sensible strategy in an age of global geopolitical shifts, several of President Trump’s own actions, however, directly and indirectly contradicts this stated goal. Rather than bringing America’s European friends into the fold, Trump is severely undermining the transatlantic relationship and pushing allies further away, thus generating new space for Beijing and Moscow to wield influence.
Two recent actions taken by Trump perfectly illustrate this worrisome trend. The first one is the use of an arcane national security provision to impose unilateral trade tariffs on allied steel and aluminum producers. Having repeatedly slammed Europe, especially Germany, for running a trade surplus, Trump’s tariffs hardly come as a surprise to European leaders who have already promised to respond in-kind and take the U.S. to court in the WTO. The unfolding trade spat now risks unleashing a transatlantic trade war that would further add to the already frosty relations between Washington and European capitals. Needless to say, this is a far cry from the language found in the NSS about working with the EU to “ensure fair and reciprocal trade practices and eliminate barriers to growth”.
What’s more, the tariffs will now make it harder to forge a common transatlantic agenda toward China. Although the NSS pledges to “work with our partners to contest China’s unfair trade and economic practices,” President Trump has shown little interest in such an agenda. In fact, during his recent state visit in Washington President Macron’s allegedly offered cooperation on China only to be rebuffed by Trump who apparently views Europe as an equal, if not even worse, trade offender than Beijing. In reality, Trump’s tariff decision and efforts to undermine the WTO plays straight into China’s hands, making it seem like less of a trade offender, undermining joint transatlantic action, and reducing U.S. pressure on Beijing.