If it’s a trade war Donald Trump wants, U.S. allies have warned, it’s a trade war he’ll get. In response to the American president’s recent decision to impose steep tariffs on aluminum and steel imports from Europe, Mexico, and Canada, leaders from all three have challenged the tariffs at the World Trade Organization (WTO). They have also announced their own retaliatory levies on American goods. On Saturday, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared that Canada would not “be pushed around” on trade by the Americans.
The first decision didn’t come as a surprise. In fact, the European Union, Mexico, and Canada warned in advance that they would confront the U.S. at the international trade body if the metal tariffs were imposed, calling into question Washington’s national-security rationale for imposing levies on its allies. Trudeau, the Canadian premier, appeared to take it personally; Canada, he noted, has fought alongside America in numerous wars, and he dubbed it “inconceivable” that Canada could pose a national-security threat to its neighbor. Cecilia Malmström, the EU trade commissioner, said the bloc, as both friends and allies, is “deeply offended by this.”
The timing of their retaliation, however, was somewhat unexpected. The current global trading system—designed in no small part by the United States—is set up in large part to slow down trade disputes like this. Typically, if a country feels a trade action is unjustified, it can file a challenge with the WTO—which functions as a kind of international arbiter—to decide whether the action was in violation of WTO rules and if proportional retaliation is warranted. The idea is to ensure an orderly process to enforce the rules of global trade. But in this case, the EU, Mexico, and Canada seem to be skipping this step and retaliating ahead of a WTO ruling—effectively taking trade justice into their own hands. Mexico’s tariffs, which target just over 1 percent of U.S. exports to the country (including products such as pork, apples, potatoes, and bourbon), went into effect last week. Tariffs from the EU and Canada, which are expected to target similar products, are due to be imposed next month.