Three Objects That Could Start Trade Wars

Tomatoes at an Istanbul bazaar
Tomatoes at an Istanbul bazaarMurad Sezer / Reuters

In our glorious new populist era, a trade war is politics by other means. For politicians like Donald Trump, who made his election a referendum on Americans’ sentiments about their global status, trade sanctions offer a convenient way to express a political ideology. But Trump is hardly the only politician using trade to symbolically bludgeon his opponents. Here are three items at the heart of trade disputes and the stories they tell.

Lumber. Trade lawyers have a name for the U.S. dispute with Canada over softwood lumber. They call it “Softwood Lumber V,” as in, the fifth installment in the long-running drama over whose system for selling lumber is better. The Trump administration’s decision this week to start imposing tariffs on Canadian lumber imports was only a surprise in that he decided to pick a fight right now, since the two have been fighting over the issue for decades. An agreement that had largely settled the issue expired in 2015, and in the intervening years, Donald Trump was elected on a promise to protect American workers from what he sees as unfair trade, particularly in the form of NAFTA. Now, as renegotiation of the trade agreement is nearing, all sides are busy puffing up their chests before talks begin in earnest. News conveniently leaked Wednesday that Trump was supposedly considering a full withdrawal from NAFTA, an unlikely prospect, followed by a quick call with the Canadian Prime Minister, which Trump cast in a tweet as forcing the Canadians to the negotiating table. Trump spent plenty of time beating up on Mexico in the past few months. Now, it seems, it’s Canada’s turn. But, as the Canadian foreign minister remarked in response to the U.S. move, “Politeness is something we believe is a national virtue, but it's not an accident that hockey is our national sport.” Trump should expect a tough game.

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Tomatoes. Russia and Turkey are locked into a trade dispute that is motivated at least as much by politics as it is by economics. Russia enacted a suite of sanctions on Turkey after a Turkish pilot shot down a Russian aircraft involved in the Syrian war in 2015. The two sides went on to mostly make up, with the big exception of Turkish tomatoes, which, along with a few other produce items, remain banned by the Russians. State television in Russia even broadcast a ceremonial bulldozing of Turkish tomatoes, which are a valuable export for Turkey. The Turks have hit back, moving recently to heavily tax Russian wheat and other agricultural imports. Trade talks continue, but the two countries remain at odds about the Syrian war, with Russia backing Kurdish forces that the Turks see as supporting separatism in Turkey. Without some broader re-alignment, the two sides are likely to find something to fight about.

Statues. It’s easy to miss in the high-level military dispute around North Korea that the isolated state has long had cultural power in parts of the world. One of the main manifestations of North Korea’s relationships with other states, particularly in Africa and Latin America, has been its statue-building business. The Mansudae Art Studio, founded by Kim Il Sung, has for years exported monumental socialist-realist statues in exchange for cold hard cash, some $10 million a year worth of it, according to the AP. Exports of raw materials like coal certainly earns far more—China’s decision to cut off the North is seen as a key to putting economic pressure on the Kim regime—but for pure symbolic power, you can’t beat the statue trade. And so in December, the UN Security Council decreed an end to the North’s statue trade. Anyone looking to build the next 160-foot-tall bronze monument will have to look elsewhere.