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.