David Webber Columbia MISSOURIAN March 15, 2018
President Donald Trump is rolling the dice on two issues near-and-dear to me — the future, perhaps a last gasp, of America’s steel industry and the fate, at least in the short-term, of the Korean Peninsula. Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum and his decision to accept an invitation to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un before May are in the face of about 50 years of prevailing economic doctrine and diplomatic history.
Little of Trump’s personal and governing style appeals to me. Apparently, he listens to few people, hardly reads policy briefings, and is largely uninformed about American political traditions and practices. Is it possible that his bombastic, often erratic, operating style just may shake up the foreign affairs establishment and the free trade club and set new us on a new course in Asia and renewed hopes in Ohio and Pennsylvania steel towns?
There are sharp contrasts in these two issues, and Trump’s involvement in them. Protective tariffs are an old issue that largely has been turned over to trade agreements and international organizations. Despite my fond memories of Pennsylvania steel towns, the parade has left town with few people, except Trump and his steel-town voters staying behind.
North Korea is also an old issue, at least 50 years, but one that national policy makers have not solved. Perhaps it is Trump’s political naiveté and international affairs inexperience that causes him to take on a challenge that his three immediate predecessors avoided. Trump showed some courage, and performed rather well, in speaking to the South Korea National Assembly last November. Perhaps he now thinks of himself as an international diplomat.
Both these policy issues that have pervaded recent American history but never really became the issue of the day. International trade policy largely has been bipartisan in supporting “free trade” and now consists of many international agreements and organizations. American interest in the Korean Peninsula also has been bipartisan — but largely one of inattention and inaction.
Academics and think-tank observers have tended to sing the same song to themselves without clearly connecting with American citizens about the real-life impacts of each issue. The decline of American manufacturing and the rise of the North Korea Kim dynasty have gone practically unchecked because no one knows the perfect solution. Enter Trump and his impulsive decision style to shake up conventional thinking and overcome inaction.
The American steel industry that once prospered in Pennsylvania and Ohio has been in free fall since the early 1980s. Despite talks of industrial policy to rejuvenate economically depressed communities, unemployed workers could listen to Washington leaders and experts talk about the benefits of free trade. Free trade appears to have benefited the information technology industry and American higher education and lowered some consumer price. It did little, however, for Western Pennsylvania and Ohio — three areas where voters somewhat inexplicably supported Trump in 2016. It was as if voters threw up their hands and collectively said “what the heck, at least he sounds like he feels our pain.” While these voters may feel good about Trump throwing some attention their way, trade tariffs will not restore their jobs and communities. The impacts are likely to be a symbolic victory appreciated only by Trump’s political base.
The United States are now almost powerless to affect the world steel industry. International trade globalization is too far along for one nation to garner economic gain through protectionism. The World Trade Organization will not permit Trump’s tariffs to stand. The time to effectively resist free trade agreements was a generation ago.
Alternatively, Trump’s announced willingness to meet with North Korea’s Kim has the potential to reduce the North Korea nuclear threat and promote stability in Asia. While both announcements were surprises, his decision on North Korea can be directly linked to his visit to South Korea last November. In this space, I wrote on Nov. 13, that time is running out, that conventional diplomatic relations have not been successful and that Trump meeting directly with Kim could work. Circumventing the “Six Party Talks” that have become another diplomatic obstacle in achieving peace in the region. Just as Trump has little patience with Congressional negotiations and compromise, he is unlikely to be patient with one-level-at-a-time diplomacy. This may be Trump’s most risky adventure. There needs to be a second, a third, and many future meetings, to chart a path toward a lasting Korean peace. Most important, Trump cannot lose interest and back off from meeting with Kim.
How will all this turn out? As Trump often says, “We’ll have to wait and see.”
David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994.