Former British prime minister Harold Macmillan once trenchantly observed that: “Jaw, jaw is better than war, war.” The announcement on July 25 by President Trump and European Union President Jean-Claude Juncker that the United States and the European Union would work together to reduce tariffs and other trade barriers was a tacit acknowledgment of Macmillan’s wisdom.
What do Americans really think about tariffs and trade issues? Trump’s willingness to talk rather than force a confrontation with the E.U. may, in part, reflect the fact that a substantial segment of the American public does not support his anti-E.U. statements and actions on trade. Even a president who loves provocative statements may not be able to ignore public opinion.
A trade war has been brewing
On June 1, the U.S. government imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from the E.U. and other nations. The E.U. retaliated with its own import duties. In mid-July Trump told CBS News that “the European Union is a foe, what they do to us in trade … they’ve really taken advantage of us.”
Washington and Brussels had been edging toward a transatlantic trade war, engaging in tit-for-tat protectionist actions that threatened economic damage that neither claimed to want. After the July 25 announcement, U.S. steel and aluminum tariffs remain in effect, as do Europe’s retaliatory measures. There is a freeze on further reciprocal trade penalties as talks continue.
Americans want to avoid trade conflicts
But many Americans are quite wary of heading down the road toward a transatlantic trade conflict. A plurality (45 percent) said raising steel and aluminum tariffs was a bad idea, according to a spring 2018 Pew Research survey. Just 37 percent thought it would be a good thing for the United States.
There was a deep partisan divide on such action, suggesting that Trump does have the backing of many in his own party. A majority of Republicans (58 percent) supported the increased steel and aluminum duties, while 63 percent of Democrats opposed them.
Americans’ opposition to the administration’s trade policy reflects concern about the impact tariffs may have on consumers and the economy. Roughly half of voters (49 percent) believe raising tariffs and barriers to imports will do more to raise the cost of goods and hurt the economy, according to a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey. Just a quarter believe that such action will protect American jobs and help the economy.
Other public opinion surveys surface a similar lack of support for the administration’s general trade actions. Results from a Fox News poll released on July 13 show more than half the public (53 percent) disapproves of Trump’s handling of trade policy — while only 41 percent approve.
A recent CNN poll had a similar finding: 50 percent of U.S. adults disapproved of the president’s handling of foreign trade, while only 39 percent approved. But the partisan divide could hardly have been starker: 82 percent of Democrats disapproved, while 79 percent of Republicans approved.
The partisan division on the president’s record is evident in other surveys. Fox News found a robust 74 percent of Republicans back Trump’s trade actions, at a time when only 13 percent of Democrats agree.
The bottom line? The president’s recent anti-E.U. rhetoric and targeting of Europe with his trade actions seems to be having a mixed impact, suggesting politics may have foreshadowed the agreement with Juncker.
Do Americans value their transatlantic allies?
By 63 percent to 25 percent, Americans say it is more important to maintain good relations with American allies than to impose tariffs to protect U.S. industries, according to the recent CNN poll. But among those who approve of Trump, 52 percent believe safeguarding American industries is more important, while 86 percent of those who disapprove of Trump say sustaining good ties with allies is more important.
At the same time, there is some evidence that the president’s criticism of the E.U. as a “foe” is resonating. Only half the American public (49 percent) sees the nations of the E.U. as allies, according to a recent CBS News survey. Fully 11 percent judge E.U. countries to be “unfriendly” or “enemies” — a view held by 15 percent of Republicans.
Nevertheless, the American public isn’t convinced that Europe is taking advantage of the United States in trade. A majority (56 percent) believes that the E.U. is a fair trader, according to a recent Gallup survey. Only 29 percent say the E.U. trades unfairly.
Even members of the president’s own party remain divided on E.U. trade practices: 42 percent of Republicans in the survey say the Europeans trade fairly; 45 percent say unfairly. Among Democrats surveyed, fully 70 percent believe the E.U. is a fair trader.
Will these latest U.S.-E.U. trade talks avert a full-blown transatlantic trade war? Only time will tell. Between 2013 and 2015 there were 15 rounds of talks between Brussels and Washington in an effort to conclude a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. The initiative eventually fizzled out.
Trump has long promised to take action on trade — and the president’s patience with the promised transatlantic trade talks has yet to be tested. Members of his own party generally share his bellicose views, while most other Americans remain wary of a trade conflict.
The longevity of this new truce in the transatlantic trade confrontation is hard to predict, but public opinion data suggest it may depend as much on the politics of trade in the United States as it will on the substantive outcome of these forthcoming negotiations.
Bruce Stokes is director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center.