If a trade war breaks out, Washington likely will be caught in the crossfire.
Exports support about 375,000 jobs in this state, according to the International Trade Administration, an agency within the U.S. Department of Commerce. That represents an increase of roughly 35 percent since 2009, with free-trade policies and international agreements contributing to a booming economy here.
So, when President Trump last week promised to impose tariffs upon imported steel and aluminum — to the surprise of his advisers and to the chagrin of Republicans and Democrats alike — he threatened to hit Washingtonians where we live. Because we’re the nation’s most trade-dependent state, the president’s frequent anti-trade proclamations are a threat to our economy.
Trump’s flirtation with tariffs could be viewed as a negotiating ploy designed to grab the attention of trading partners, or it could be viewed as an off-the-cuff statement that should not be taken seriously. But when the president doubled down by tweeting, “Trade wars are good, and easy to win,” he generated serious doubt about how well he understands global economics.
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Placing tariffs upon steel and aluminum would compel trading partners to retaliate by establishing their own tariffs upon American exports, which would trigger a response from the United States … and so on. The prospect of such a cycle calls to mind the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930, which helped turn the Great Depression into a global calamity.
As Bloomberg View wrote editorially last week: “Boasting about how easy it is to win a trade war … adds an element of historical and strategic obliviousness to the administration’s economic incompetence.” Or, as conservative columnist Jay Ambrose wrote in an open letter to Trump: “When you put America last … when you threaten jobs and prosperity on behalf of an utter stupidity at war with the best you have done, forget it.”
All of that is particularly relevant in Washington. Among other things, tariffs would raise the price of aluminum that Boeing imports for use in building airplanes, could limit markets for other Washington manufacturers, and could lead other nations to close markets to Washington agriculture.
Don Bonker, who represented Southwest Washington in Congress from 1975-89, wrote in an opinion piece for The Seattle Times: “Such punishing trade restrictions will likely prompt China to retaliate. … China has already prepared a list of U.S. goods and products that would be subject to import restrictions. At the top of the list is agriculture.”
China is Washington’s biggest trading partner, annually purchasing more than $16 billion worth of products. “Washington state, more than any other, will feel the brunt should China take retaliatory action,” Bonker wrote. “It will not only affect the state’s robust agriculture sector that is increasingly dependent on exports, but also Puget Sound and the state’s other port facilities that do the shipping.”
Trump has frequently expressed anti-trade sentiments, pulling the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and demanding renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement. Meanwhile, China has signed new trade pacts with 21 countries, further positioning itself to become the world’s preeminent economic engine.
Rather than making America great again, Trump’s policies are making America isolated. And that is especially damaging to Washington.