The independent news organization of Duke University

Thucydides' tariff

President Donald Trump’s most recent overture to his voter base has come in the form of restrictive tariffs being imposed on imports of steel and aluminum entering the United States. Initially, the president decided to impose taxes of 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum imports in a move to “protect” domestic manufacturing industries. Stoking increasingly valid fears of a trade war with the world’s greatest exporter of goods, China, Trump has been uninhibited in continuing his anti-trade efforts with subsequent tariffs amid reciprocal trade measures taken by the PRC government. 

One finds it painfully difficult to believe that these recent trade barriers have been erected for the sake of the American people. If we are to peer beyond the scope of the steel sector, we actually will endure a net loss in jobs (146,000) as predicted by the Trade Partnership. Moreover, Trump’s short-term oriented pandering does not consider the core of what ought to be done in the face of mass structural employment: retraining. Equipping workers who have understandably been discontented by the side-effects of free trade with the necessary job skills to survive within America’s service-based economy is one such policy solution that the current administration has neglected to consider. Free trade agreements allow the United States to break down barriers to foreign markets and grow the demand for American goods, creating the need for greater employment at home.

Most worrying about this recent pattern is the exacerbation of already poor tensions between the United States and China—considered by many to be the two major global powers of the 21st century. As explained by prominent scholars of international relations, China’s rise as a global hegemon risks carrying the U.S and China into the historically deadly "Thucydides Trap." The idea holds, in most basic terms, that a rising power triggers great fear in the mind of an established power: Germany versus France in early 20th century Europe, the U.S versus the U.S.S.R in the mid to late 20th century, and now the U.S versus China in the 21st century.  It is this fear of being overrun that often triggers a preemptive war, because there is no guarantee that the enemy will not act first. Explicit within this idea of whoever blinks first is intentions. If one actor is unable to aggregate the intentions of the other, they must hedge and prepare for the worst because the cost of being unprepared would be unimaginably grave. 

The economic interdependence that heightens the threshold for armed conflict and yields reassurance in times of foreign crises is now being broken down in the midst of increased tension over islands in the South China Sea. More pressingly, as China plays a crucial role in bringing a peaceful end to North Korea’s nuclear efforts, this move could not be less timely. The doctrine of the Thucydides Trap was developed around a global political paradigm of hard power primacy: the dog-eat-dog Hobbesian realm of little mutual trust for benevolent intentions. 

In enacting tariffs against China at such a time, Trump has, should tensions in the South China Sea come to a head, removed a critical rung from the escalation ladder in a would-be dispute. Ultimately, this has been done for the sake of Trump’s voter base, and Trump will stop at nothing to pander to his isolationist base that sees the U.S as the world’s supreme hegemon in which the presidency can act independently of rational foreign relations. 

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