The Trump administration’s message about trade these days can more or less be described in three words: trust the process. NBA fans may be familiar with those words as the motto of the Philadelphia 76ers, which spent years tanking on the court in order to acquire draft picks and eventually build a winning team. The White House would have you think it’s doing something similar with global commerce. At the moment, it’s aggressively imposing tariffs on major trade partners, causing agita in financial markets and leading countries to retaliate against U.S. industries (pity the soybean farmers). At the moment, it all mostly looks like madness. But we are assured there’s also a method to it. Trump is using tariffs as a tool in order to make our allies sit down and negotiate better trade deals that will serve the U.S.’s long-range interests.
We’re trading some “short-term pain”—as press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders put it—for long-term gain. Trust the process.
On Tuesday morning, Donald Trump tried to offer a bit of evidence that the process was, in fact, working, bragging about his upcoming sit-down with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who is visiting Washington this week to discuss trade issues.
Like usual, reality is a bit less flattering to the president. Juncker is indeed paying Trump a visit thanks to his tariffs. Relations between Europe and the United States fell into turmoil after the administration placed tariffs on European steel and aluminum. Now the White House is threatening to impose a 20 percent duty on European cars—which would be an especially major blow to Germany. Juncker is expected to discuss both issues during his trip to D.C. But contrary to what White House officials have suggested, he is not showing up with any kind of specific offering to appease Trump. “There are no offers,” a European Commission spokesman told reporters. “This is a discussion, it is a dialogue, and it is an opportunity to talk and to stay engaged in dialogue.”
The pair may not have much to talk about, either. EU officials have said publicly that they will not negotiate with the U.S. over trade so long as its tariffs remain in place, because they don’t want to bargain “with a gun to our head.” Of course, it’s possible that Juncker is visiting in order to do a bit of preliminary, unofficial negotiating. But as of now, it seems that Trump’s strategy of trying to beat trade partners into submission is impeding progress rather than encouraging it with Europe. In contrast, the EU and Japan just managed to strike a major trade deal reducing tariffs, including Europe’s 10 percent duty on foreign passenger cars—the very same levy Trump is supposedly trying to make Europe drop by threatening to tax BMWs and Volkwagens at the border. And while reports from the recent G-20 summit suggest the U.S. is apparently having trouble getting any country to bite at its offers for trade negotiations, Europe is in the process of updating a trade deal with Mexico, wrapping up new pacts with Vietnam and Singapore, and negotiating with Australia, Chile, Indonesia, New Zealand, Tunisia, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, and India. This all suggests that intimidation tactics may not be the best way to get Europe, or anybody, to the bargaining table.
Some might argue that the U.S. already tried and failed to pursue a normal, less-antagonistic negotiation strategy with Europe. Talks over a U.S.-EU free trade agreement collapsed in 2016, as Europeans blanched at U.S. demands. But given that Europe felt the U.S. was being too aggressive before, it’s hard to see how Trump’s belligerence will change the outcome now. The president wants voters to believe tariffs are already working. But as of now, there’s really no reason to trust the White House’s process.