It appears to be the time of historical references in world politics. French President Emmanuel Macron felt that recent world events reminded him of the lead-up to World War II, while German leader Angela Merkel had similar thoughts, citing the less-well-known 1555 Peace of Augsburg, which created some of the conditions for the devastating Thirty Years War in Europe.

On May 25, it was Trump’s turn to make ominous historical references, according to reports by CNN and CBC. Defending his decision to impose trade tariffs on Canada on national security grounds, Trump — perhaps as a joke — asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a call:

“Didn’t you guys burn down the White House?”

To be clear: No, they didn’t.

In fact, the burning of the White House may be the worst possible example to justify a trade dispute — one of the reasons the White House burned was because of a trade dispute.

Trump was referring to the war of 1812 between the British and the Americans that resulted in the burning of Washington in 1814, at a time when Canada was still part of the British Empire. While Canada didn’t burn down the White House — that dubious honor fell to British forces following a U.S. invasion of what is today Ontario — it was at least on the side of the British, which is perhaps reason enough for the president to use it as an example to make a point about Canada being a national security threat to U.S. interests.

To justify his steep tariffs imposed on Canada, Mexico and the European Union, Trump has relied on an obscure provision that allows member states of the World Trade Organization to claim exemptions from its obligations if national security is at stake. That argument has rarely been used by WTO member states, partially because proving that the exception applies is usually difficult and virtually impossible in Trump’s case. Besides that, Trump is now stuck with his underlying suggestion that some of the United States’ closest allies — including Europe and Canada — may pose a risk to U.S. national security.

Trudeau has vehemently rejected this suggestion, reminding the president of the “thousands of Canadians who have fought and died alongside American comrades-in-arms” in two world wars and more recent conflicts. Canada is also part of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance with the United States and three other nations that exchange especially sensitive information.


Canadian soldiers march at a sunset ceremony and mounting of the vigil at the World War I Canadian National Vimy Memorial in Givenchy-en-Gohelle, France, on April 8, 2017, to honor Canadian soldiers who were killed or wounded during the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917. (Virginia Mayo/AP)

The 1812 reference may prove the bizarreness of the entire argument, but it also points to a more troubling, historical lesson.

The problem with that war especially is that it proves exactly what Trump probably didn’t want to imply: Trade disputes can easily get out of control.

Back in 1812, the roles of Britain and the United States were largely reversed. The United States wanted free trade with Europe, but Britain was vehemently opposed to that. The U.S. slogan that emerged in summer 1812 — “A free trade and sailors rights” — largely explains two of the key reasons that led to the subsequent war, and thus the destruction of the White House in 1814.

By demanding sailors rights, the Americans wanted an end to the British practice of forcing its mariners into their naval service. “According to English Common Law, even citizens who had emigrated to other nations had no right to forego their British citizenship, and hence their susceptibility for being impressed in times of war,” the Foreign Policy Research Institute explained in a chronology of the war. Under that principle, British officers would board U.S. vessels and force (often former) British sailors to work for them instead, which resulted in the 1807 USS Chesapeake incident in which three American sailors were killed and 16 wounded. Another point of contention was Britain’s support for Native Americans.

At the same time, the United States was suffering under the economic repercussions of its declaration of independence in 1776. As part of the British Empire, London’s colonies had been able to trade freely with much of the British-ruled world — sort of an archaic version of NAFTA or the European Economic Area. But after rebelling against the British, the United States was suddenly on its own, as it faced trade restrictions by both the British and the French who were fighting each other in the Napoleonic wars at the time. Both countries were at odds with the United States because its policy of neutrality conflicted with the two European nations’ attempts to essentially to starve each other into submission.

Dismayed by forced enlistments, action against merchants and other trade challenges, tensions resulted in a U.S. embargo on the trade of all goods with Britain and France, culminating in a war that included a botched U.S. invasion of what would later become Canada.


A lithograph print shows fire damage to the White House after burning by the British during the war of 1812. (Library of Congress)

The United States of 1812 and the European Union of 2018 are of course hardly comparable, especially as the United States and most Western European nations are now part of the same military alliance, NATO. But both the United States of two centuries ago and today’s European Union face similar choices over whether to comply with efforts to restrict free trade or whether to resist a powerful nation.

“Must we remain passive victims to foreign politics; or shall we exert the lawful means which our independence has put into our hands, of extorting readdress?” asked the fourth U.S. president, James Madison, according to Bloomberg.

In the case of the United States, the subsequent embargo caused economic decline in the short run, even though it’s being credited with making the United States more self-reliant in the long term. The same arguments are being made in Europe today, as European leaders fear weakened growth or even recessions if a trade war with Trump escalates, but continue to stress that the pressure from Washington will end up making them less dependent on the United States.

If anything, the 1812 example proves the unpredictability of such tactics on both sides.

Even though the British accepted many U.S. demands in June 1812, their concessions came too late. By the time the news reached the other side of the Atlantic, the United States had already declared war against Britain.

This post has been updated to clarify under which circumstances WTO member states can claim exemptions from their international trade obligations if national security is at stake.

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