Donald Trump's tweet that "Trade wars are good, and easy to win" is one of the strangest comments – and there have been many – made by this President since assuming office.
Done in his typically bellicose manner, Mr. Trump's announcement of new tariffs on steel and aluminum imports is another American assault on the rules-based global trading system and an affront to the international community at large.
It provoked immediate and vigorous worldwide condemnation. The European Union, Germany, Canada and others have threatened retaliation if the United States goes ahead with this. China won't stand idly by without responding.
Details of the tariffs will be issued this week. While we don't know for sure, Canada likely won't be excluded. But even if Canada gets off the hook, the world could be plunged headlong into a global trade war with unpredictable consequences.
All of this follows recommendations made by U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross under an obscure law called the 1962 Trade Expansion Act, the last time it was used being in 2001 when the Commerce Department found that no American security interests were prejudiced by imports of semi-finished steel.
The report totally ignores any reference to U.S. treaty obligations under the World Trade Organization Agreement, as if none of this matters a wit. This is typical of the disregard shown by the Trump administration toward American treaty commitments, equally reflected in its 2018 Trade Policy Agenda, tabled last month, which talks of a "new era" in U.S. trade policy, unapologetically using U.S. leverage and not letting the WTO or any other international body interfere.
The world trade order, whatever its limitations, has already been weakened by Mr. Trump's hostile America First agenda.
Far from making America great again, the U.S. President is destroying faith in American leadership, revealing the United States an unreliable partner, whether it be at the WTO, the North American free-trade agreement, the Paris climate accord, the Trans-Pacific Partnership or other forums. It will take years to restore that leadership, if that's even possible, as China and Russia, in particular, move strategically into the vacuum.
While not perfect, the WTO is the centre pole for ensuring orderly conduct of global commerce, a system of which the United States was the principal architect and, whatever Mr. Trump and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer claim, its chief beneficiary.
As the product of decades of collective efforts, the WTO's rules aim to prevent a repeat of the beggar-thy-neighbour tariff policies of the 1930s through carefully crafted rules designed to maintain stability and keep global markets open and functioning.
Good-faith respect for those rules, especially by the world's most powerful country, is fundamental to the preservation of the WTO as an institution.
Mr. Trump's latest foray into unilateralism does damage by unravelling more than 70 years of statecraft, whereby governments carefully avoided trade restrictions under claims of national security, recognizing the incalculable damage it would do to global business and commerce.
There are, admittedly, some exceptions to WTO obligations, ones that Mr. Trump may be relying on. A WTO member can temporarily opt out of legally binding commitments in exceptional cases necessary "for the protection of its essential security interests." However, that exception applies only in time of "war or other emergency in international relations." Imports of foreign steel and aluminum, even if distasteful to the Trump team, hardly amount to an international emergency of any sort.
The national security off-ramp employed by Mr. Trump is now one of the most serious challenges facing the WTO since its inception, going to the root of its very being. If the United States can opt out of its trade obligations, who's to stop other countries from doing the same thing, dressing up their rationale in the cloak of national security?
A round of clashes at the WTO in Geneva are only part of the responses these new U.S. measures will unleash. As stated, immediate retaliatory actions by China, the EU, Russia and other countries, including Canada, are already being drawn up.
Contrary to what Mr. Trump tweeted, trade wars are never easy to win. In fact, no one comes out a winner.
A foretaste of the destabilizing impact of the U.S. tariffs was seen Friday as stock markets around the world took a hit, a reflection of what's in store in the months – and years – under Mr. Trump's xenophobic world view.
To make America great again – if that can ever be done – means restoring faith and reliability in U.S. leadership. Sadly, we are heading in the opposite direction, as global order suffers under the chaos and stress wrought by Donald Trump.