The Trump administration’s “America First” approach to tariffs and trade doesn’t merely involve financial issues: It raises questions central to war and peace.
That may sound hyperbolic. But two Yale law professors, Oona A. Hathaway and Scott J. Shapiro, make a persuasive case that the world could become a far more dangerous place if the Trump administration seriously disrupts the global consensus that has been in place for decades.
“Imperfect as it may be, the world operates under the understanding that war is illegal and trade sanctions are a legal method of punishing aggressive behavior,” Professor Shapiro said. “But sanctions only work with a healthy regime of international trade, and under the rule of international law. That is all coming into question now.”
For the moment, the most obvious issues arising from the Trump administration’s trade initiatives are mainly financial. On Monday, the United States imposed new tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese goods, and Mr. Trump said he was prepared to tax all Chinese imports.
The Chinese authorities quickly retaliated with new levies on $60 billion in American products. And the United States also has trade disputes brewing with several allies. The costs for consumers, businesses and the world economy are being closely tallied.
But the two scholars say the administration’s aggressive approach could have a much higher cost: It could unravel a complex series of rules and agreements that have served to moderate the behavior of great powers like the United States, China, the Soviet Union and, now, Russia.
In a provocative book, “The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World” (Simon & Schuster, 2017), they provide a history of international law. They say the relative prosperity and peace of the post-World War II world owes a great deal to a now-obscure international treaty — the Kellogg-Briand Pact.
The treaty, signed in 1928, outlawed war. That may seem an odd statement, because, of course, war never ended. World War II was the most costly conflict in human history, terrorism and intrastate violence have flourished around the world, and the Afghanistan conflict is already the longest-running American war by a large margin.
Perhaps that is why the Kellogg-Briand Pact is often belittled, when it is remembered at all. George Kennan, the eminent diplomat, historian and strategist, called the pact “childish, just childish” in its utopian aspirations.
Yet the book makes a spirited argument that a series of legal and institutional changes gradually flowed from that 1928 treaty, helping to create the rules of a world order that are now as pervasive — and as little noticed — as the air we breathe. And in interviews, the two professors said the Trump administration’s actions and threats are endangering that stabilizing environment.
It’s not just that allies like China, Germany, Japan and Canada say they are preparing reciprocal measures in response to the rising tariffs threatened or imposed by the United States. It’s not just that financial markets and economic sectors have begun to react, or even that the escalating trade war threatens global economic growth. It’s not even the increasingly acrimonious relationship between China and the United States.
At stake are even bigger issues, the professors say.
Consider, Professor Hathaway said, what kind of a world we could be re-entering, if the Trump administration’s escalation of its conflicts with other nations were to shred the current international consensus.
“Some pivotal principles are at stake,” she said. “Recall that punishing aggressive behavior through trade sanctions was illegal before the treaty in 1928, and acquiring territory through war was legal,” she said. “But in 1928, and with the rules that gradually developed, that was reversed.”
She continued: “It’s important to realize that if you disrupt the world trading system — and the consensus outlawing war that is in place today — you are disrupting the financial means of punishing violations of war. In the end, you may be left with nothing but reliance on force.”
Without robust trade, she said, geopolitical disputes over such issues as dominion over the South China Sea could flare more easily into military confrontations between great powers. Mutually beneficial commerce — and the need to abide by the international rules that make it possible — have successfully moderated the behavior of sovereign states.
That has been the explicit aim of a succession of United States presidents, starting with Richard M. Nixon, who sought to give China — formerly an isolated Communist giant — a stake in the world economy and in the American-dominated global economic and political system put in place in the aftermath of World War II.
This has never been entirely smooth. Disagreements over the terms of trade and the structure of the Chinese economy have rankled Americans since the early 1980s, when China entered the modern world economy. But given their political and economic differences, China and the United States have had a remarkably calm relationship until now.
Strong, respectful negotiating to improve the relative standing of the United States is entirely appropriate, Professor Shapiro said. “I don’t think anybody would defend the current system as being perfect. Far from it. But there’s a difference between trying to reform the system from within, and blowing it up, which is what seems to be happening.”
For example, he said, the day-to-day rules and arbitration procedures of the World Trade Organization don’t usually attract much attention, but they are crucial if trade is to proceed smoothly — and peacefully — around the world.
By invoking national security provisions to support its trade demands, the president has helped to create a crisis at the organization. And by blocking the appointment of the appellate judges who arbitrate disputes, the administration is making it difficult for the W.T.O. to address the increasingly contentious trade fracases that have been erupting ever more frequently.
The situation has become bad enough that the European Union has started a “last-ditch effort” to repair the W.T.O. and save it from what may well be the Trump administration’s efforts to destroy it, Politico reports.
And the administration’s decision to abandon the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and to use high-pressure tactics to rework or abandon the North American Free Trade Agreement epitomize the “go it alone approach” that President Trump has used, breaking with the traditions of every other post-World War II presidency, Professor Shapiro said.
As a prime example of the administration’s animus toward international organizations, Professor Hathaway pointed to a Sept. 10 speech by John Bolton, President Trump’s national security adviser, in which he attacked the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Mr. Bolton said the organization — established through a treaty signed by 123 states — “unacceptably threatens American sovereignty and U.S. national security interests.”
In a remarkable turnabout, he threatened to use economic sanctions — which became a prime tool for enforcing international law as a result of the Kellogg-Briand Pact — as weapons to deter the court’s judges from enforcing international law, Professor Hathaway said.
Furthermore, Mr. Bolton has in the past condemned the W.T.O. as well, generally advocating a unilateral approach by the United States and an end to the decision-making process enshrined in the organization.
Under the circumstances, boring, negotiated resolutions to the current trade disputes would be a happy ending, Professor Hathaway said. What the world may face instead, is the dismal prospect of conflict without the rules or means for resolving it peacefully. The United States would remain a powerful player in that world, but it would be playing a much more dangerous game.