Foreign leaders were not able to stop President Trump’s new trade policies with negotiations, so they seem to have one last ditch tactic: a real trade war.
Canada, Mexico and the European Union have pledged to put penalties on billions of dollars of American goods in the coming weeks. Items on their list range from orange juice to Harley Davidsons to aftershave.
These moves are in response to Trump’s decision to impose steep duties on steel and aluminum exports. These foreign leaders are banking on a slowdown in the U.S. economy and a loss of American jobs persuading the president to change his mind.
“I think there’s a resignation,” said Tony Fratto, a former Treasury Department and White House official under George W. Bush. “You’re not going to do it with words, so you have to do it with impact.”
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe traveled to Trump Tower to visit the president-elect shortly after his election. But then Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership on his third day in office.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has sat patiently through several rounds of talks to renegotiate NAFTA. But Trump repeatedly threatened to tear up the agreement if Ottawa doesn’t agree to what it sees as unreasonable demands.
And French President Emmanuel Macron has had to be a Trump “interpreter” in Europe. But he and other members of the EU have repeatedly threatened to hit back at U.S. tariffs with retaliatory duties of their own.
Now those leaders are no longer playing nice, they are punching back.
“We can show the U.S. president that his actions, unacceptable actions, are hurting his own citizens,” Trudeau told reporters this week. “American jobs are on the line because of his actions and because of his administration. And when we can underscore this — and we see that there’s a lot of pressure within the United States — then perhaps he will revise or review his statements.”
Trudeau spent months being what he has described as “polite and respectful” toward Trump despite stark differences in their politics. Now he has become one of the loudest critics of the new steel and aluminum tariffs. He called them “insulting and unacceptable,” and has vowed to respond with penalties on more than $12 billion in U.S. goods.
Macron’s administration in France has perhaps become the most forthright in emphasizing the need to retaliate, in part because of a belief that the U.S. president respects strength.
“We do not want the situation to escalate to a full-blown and merciless trade war, but hostile actions cannot be left unanswered,” French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said this week. “The EU is now determined to assert its economic sovereignty.”
Mexico has so far taken a softer approach to the tariffs.
“Mexico has no incentive to get into brawls with the U.S., because governments change,” the other source said. “Peña Nieto is going to be gone, Trump will also be gone, and the relationship will move forward.”
Nearly 30 European ambassadors to the U.S. made their fact-based appeal to Trump again on Friday through a Washington Post op-ed. They have accepted the fact that it is time to forge ahead with punitive measures, even if doing so amounts to shooting themselves in the foot.
“Things are probably going to get worse before the United States changes its position,” Fratto said. “Because the United States doesn’t think it’s wrong. It thinks it’s right, and it’s very indignant about it.”