One upside of watching the postwar international order disintegrate before our very eyes is that, every once in a while, somebody leaks some embarrassing and entertaining detail about Donald Trump’s conversations with other world leaders. For instance, CNN reports that during a “testy” conversation about the recent steel and aluminum tariffs the United States imposed on Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau interrogated Donald Trump about how he could possibly consider his country, one of America’s most stalwart allies, a national security threat. Trump jokingly responded by asking, “Didn’t you guys burn down the White House?” This was supposed to be a reference to the War of 1812, and would have been a pretty good retort—except that it was actually the British who torched Washington. Oh well.
This story is funny, in the way that the pratfalls of a wildly ignorant chief executive who is slowly claiming ever broader executive powers have become a constant source of grim humor. But it also points to one of the more common misunderstandings about this whole tariff controversy, and some of the ways Trump has actually twisted Washington’s conventional understanding of how trade and national security relate.
Trump’s official rationale for the steel and aluminum tariffs he’s imposing on Canada, Mexico, and Europe is that they are necessary to protect America’s national security, because competition from foreign imports is destroying America’s domestic production capacity, which needs to be preserved so that we can defend ourselves in a time of conflict. (You need steel to build ships, and special high-grade aluminum to build fighter jets, to take a couple examples.) Nobody is suggesting that Canada has suddenly become an aggressive foreign power bent on annexing the West Coast into British Columbia. The concern is about the effects steel imports from all over the world are having on American factories.
Nonetheless, Canadian officials—perhaps sensing an easy opportunity to score some rhetorical points—have made a great show expressing their public indignation at supposedly being labeled a menace to America’s public safety. “The idea that we are somehow a national security threat to the United States is, quite frankly, insulting and unacceptable,” Trudeau told NBC’s Chuck Todd. Canadian Minister of Foreign Affiars Chrystia Freeland, a former business journalist who certainly understands what’s actually going on, made similar comments to CNN: “And I would just say to all of Canada’s American friends—and there are so many— seriously? Do you really believe that Canada, that your NATO allies, represent a national security threat to you?”
Again, nobody actually believes that. Rather, the Trump administration is insisting that Canadian and European steel are a threat to American industry, which in turn erodes our national security—which, even if wrong, is a less facially absurd argument.
Here’s the thing that’s actually strange about Trump’s national security analysis, which was conducted by the Commerce Department. When the government has set out to determine whether imports pose a threat to American national security interests in the past, it’s considered whether the U.S. is capable of buying goods from reliable allies like Canada or Mexico. The idea isn’t to make sure that the U.S. is completely self-sufficient in the case of a major international confrontation—just that we can get what we need in an emergency. This time around, however, the administration chose not to do that, and included an entire paragraph in its report explaining why not. In short, it claimed that when Congress passed the law giving the president the power to act on these issues, it didn’t really care whether imports came from an ally or not, just whether they were weakening our own industry or economy.
The Secretary also considered whether the source of the imports affects the analysis under Section 232. In the 2001 Report, “the Department found that iron ore and semi-finished steel are imported from reliable foreign sources” and concluded that “even if the United States were dependent on imports of iron ore and semifinished steel, imports would not threaten to impair national security.” However, because Congress in Section 232 chose to explicitly direct the Secretary to consider whether the “impact of foreign competition” and “the displacement of any domestic products by excessive imports” are “weakening our internal economy” but made no reference to an assessment of the sources of imports, it appears likely that Congress recognized adverse impacts might be caused by imports from allies or other reliable sources. As a result, the fact that some or all of the imports causing the harm are from reliable sources does not compel a finding that those imports do not threaten to impair national security.
You can debate whether this is a fair reading of the statute (it’s certainly not a traditional reading). But in the end, the Trump administration is taking the broadest possible approach to defining an economic national security threat, and doing it in a way that doesn’t consider whether our imports come from friendly sources.
Of course, all of this is a little bit absurd because, in the end, Trump has made it abundantly clear that his tariffs are not actually about national security, but about protecting a favored industry while throwing America’s weight around on world trade in order to win concessions on things like NAFTA negotiations. So Canada’s leaders have been wielding a catchy but slightly bogus argument to criticize America’s obviously insincere but perhaps legally sound justification for starting a trade war. It’s all a bit of a Kabuki. But at least the leaks are good for a LOL.