Strategies: Why Tariff and Trade Disputes Are More than a Money Problem

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Perhaps that is why the Kellogg-Briand Pact is often belittled, when it is remembered at all. George Kennan, the eminent diplomat, historian and strategist, called the pact “childish, just childish” in its utopian aspirations.

Yet the book makes a spirited argument that a series of legal and institutional changes gradually flowed from that 1928 treaty, helping to create the rules of a world order that are now as pervasive — and as little noticed — as the air we breathe. And in interviews, the two professors said the Trump administration’s actions and threats are endangering that stabilizing environment.

It’s not just that allies like China, Germany, Japan and Canada say they are preparing reciprocal measures in response to the rising tariffs threatened or imposed by the United States. It’s not just that financial markets and economic sectors have begun to react, or even that the escalating trade war threatens global economic growth. It’s not even the increasingly acrimonious relationship between China and the United States.

At stake are even bigger issues, the professors say.

Consider, Professor Hathaway said, what kind of a world we could be re-entering, if the Trump administration’s escalation of its conflicts with other nations were to shred the current international consensus.

“Some pivotal principles are at stake,” she said. “Recall that punishing aggressive behavior through trade sanctions was illegal before the treaty in 1928, and acquiring territory through war was legal,” she said. “But in 1928, and with the rules that gradually developed, that was reversed.”

She continued: “It’s important to realize that if you disrupt the world trading system — and the consensus outlawing war that is in place today — you are disrupting the financial means of punishing violations of war. In the end, you may be left with nothing but reliance on force.”

Without robust trade, she said, geopolitical disputes over such issues as dominion over the South China Sea could flare more easily into military confrontations between great powers. Mutually beneficial commerce — and the need to abide by the international rules that make it possible — have successfully moderated the behavior of sovereign states.

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