THERE IS a certain symmetry in the fact that President Trump would target some of the United States’ closest allies with high tariffs in this, the 70th-anniversary year of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. GATT, as it was known, was the precursor to today’s World Trade Organization and, like the WTO, an institutional product of American postwar foreign policy. For seven decades, a bipartisan consensus has held that the United States has more to gain, both economically and politically, by expanding the circle of partners with which it trades as freely as possible. For most of his adult life, Mr. Trump has rejected that consensus, claiming that it was actually a kind of corrupt bargain among denationalized elites, American, European and Asian. Now, as president, he is acting on that belief.
For the small minority of Americans whose prosperity hinges on the steel and aluminum industries, there will be benefits, at least in the short term; everyone else will pay — especially those who work in industries targeted by the inevitable retaliation from Europe, Mexico and Canada. And they will pay not only in material terms: There is great political risk in what Mr. Trump is doing and in how he is doing it.
Admittedly, it takes some long-range thinking to identify the political stakes. As past generations understood, however, those have to do with the international peace and stability, and human progress, that may come from U.S. orchestration on terms of reciprocity of the global economy. Of course, trading patterns have not always matched that ideal; China’s accession to the WTO, in particular, has not tamed that country’s mercantilist policies as American advocates once thought it would. After 70 years, it would be surprising if the WTO and related arrangements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement did not need an update, to include renegotiation — and even to include negotiations in which the United States plays more hardball than it has in the past.
By invoking national security as a rationale for tariffs on political and military allies, Mr. Trump goes beyond hardball to bad faith. The national-security exception to tariff-reducing international trade rules is and was meant to be applied narrowly and sparingly, lest the exception swallow the rules. Mr. Trump applies it promiscuously: It is simply not true, for example, that aluminum imports from Canada — officially recognized by the Defense Department as part of the U.S. “defense industrial base” — threaten national security.
During the postwar period, Congress delegated much authority over U.S. trade policy to the president, which means that presidential credibility and good faith are essential to the overall functioning of the international system. Acting precipitously, and on the basis of concepts that are simplistic when they are not false, Mr. Trump diminishes those intangible assets. Perhaps, under duress, U.S. allies will do some or all of Mr. Trump’s bidding; there is still time to head off a trade war before it spoils prosperity both in the United States and abroad. Either way, however, the trust in U.S. leadership that took generations to build will have been dangerously eroded.