U.S. President Donald Trump's imposition of trade tariffs on China has gone further than ever to establish his approach to diplomacy by means of shock effects. It is not that he is suddenly launching new ideas which had not previously been mentioned in the U.S. political debate. It is that he is unhesitatingly implementing policies which he had clearly announced during his election campaign.
The norm for American politicians is to promise all sorts of radical action during a campaign, only to row back under the pressures of actual office. President Trump, to many people's surprise and a few people's horror, appears to be almost more radical in his actions than in his promises.
The aim of this shock diplomacy is to guard against the possibility of an endless series of negotiations getting bogged down in one version or another of the status quo. Trump's idea is to make it clear that the status-quo option is no longer on the table, and that a radically new approach is needed by both sides.
When Julius Caesar said "Let the dice fly high!" on crossing the Rubicon river to overthrow the government of Rome, he was acting in a way which Donald Trump will have understood. Normal diplomacy begins by setting out negotiating positions and gently testing the water for points of potential agreement and compromise:What one might call"Trumplomacy"does not test the water but dives straight in with a terrific splash, represented by the imposition of tariffs, with only a three-week warning, on July 6.
Before we get too shocked at this, we must remember that there is a positive precedent for thepresident's approach. Only six months ago President Trump was openly discussing the prospect of launching a nuclear war against the Democratic People's Republic of Korea: an outcome even worse than a U.S.-China trade war would be. But the resulting concentration of minds on all sides has led to a general rethink, which so far has raised the real possibility of a denuclearization deal and a sustainable peace settlement.
Trump's trade initiative is certainly not aimed specifically at China. Prior to July 6, he had already slapped tariffs on Canada, Mexico and the European Union, as well as launching attacks on American allies in NATO and the G7. He clearly does not shy away from what he sees as a necessary confrontation,and if he wishes to use his unusual approach to force a reconstruction of the global trading order, it makes sense to start by engaging the U.S.' only serious rival, which is China.
It is inconceivable that any U.S.president would deliberately set out to start a long-term and implacable trade war with a nation of the size and power of China. It is much more likely that Trump's plan is aimed at forcing more rapid progress on a reconstitution of the trading order than might have been the case with a more conventional approach.
Inevitably there will be some short-term pain on both sides. The signs are that the first negative effects are being felt in the U.S. rather than in China. One invariable result of uncertainty in matters of trade are fluctuations and negative trends in stock markets, which will affect Trump's prosperous voting base. Once the tariff struggle moves into the field of consumer goods, either the manufacturing industry or consumers – or both – will take a hit.
The proposals for a sharp curtailment of Chinese investment will also have a greater immediate effect in the U.S. than in China. And Trump has mid-term elections coming up in November. (That last consideration may be partly responsible for the timing, in the hope that the recent surge in the U.S. economy and U.S. employment will still be buoying up domestic good feeling.
China, of course, retains considerable power to manage her economy and steer through any patches of turbulence. But it may come to a test of resilience, and China could do without pressure on her currency right now.
But perhaps there is something to be said for attacking difficult problems head-on and not constantly kicking them into the long grass. Maybe going head to head with China at this point may pave the way for a mutually agreeable and mutually beneficial solution to some of the long-standing problems between the world's two most powerful nations, and thereby form the basis of a sustainable framework for a future global trading system.
Donald Trump may at times appear impulsive and erratic, but in practice reveals himself as surprisingly sure-footed in the complicated jungle of international relations. But we will have to fasten our seat belts and prepare for a bumpy ride.