Our angry allies, then and now

  • 19 June 2018
  • NormanL

The press has been in one of its increasingly frequent, and depressingly predictable, lathers over the president's actions on international trade. While there are legitimate and important questions that need to be asked about tariffs, there is something familiar about what's happening right now. It turns out we have been here before, and heard similar cries of doom, despair and the end of the west:

The French foreign minister accuses the American president of furthering a "divorce" between the United States and its European allies.

"Deep Trade Rift With Allies Seen," is a headline at The New York Times. "The Roots of Western Disunity" is the headline over another Times piece observing, "Over the last few years, trans-Atlantic differences on foreign policy have become so frequent that most of us regard them as the normal state of affairs."

"Rising Trade Barriers Stir Memories of U.S. Depression," is another Times headline, over an article that begins, "A surge of aggressive economic nationalism, as strong as any in the last half century, threatens to overwhelm the free trade policies that have underwritten the postwar prosperity of industrialized nations." It quotes a House staffer who called the situation "the most dangerous since 1930," which the Times reminded readers referred to "the Smoot-Hawley tariffs, which some say triggered the Great Depression."

The Times also writes about the president's "killing off of top foreign-policy officials," noting that so far the president "has had three national security advisers and two Secretaries of State."

That may all sound like it is recent press coverage of the Trump administration. Actually, though, it was all coverage of President Ronald Reagan, from back in 1982 and 1983.

Way back then, Reagan's administration imposed tariffs and trade quotas on goods from foreign countries. He pushed for missile defense programs that saw tens of thousands of Europeans take to the streets in angry protest. Does that mean Trump is like Reagan, and will not only overcome the immediate cries against his policies, but also rise to become one of the most consequential politicians of his era?

We prefer to let events unfold and for history to make its judgments. But we will keep this in mind the next time the press goes off the deep end (which ought to happen in 3...2...1...):

Reagan came under basically the same criticism 36 years ago, at about the same juncture in his administration. So, at one time or another, has virtually every other successful president. Europe, Canada, and Mexico complained about President Bill Clinton's Iran-Libya Sanctions Act and his Helms-Burton Act imposing secondary sanctions on countries that traded with Cuba. George W. Bush was accused of alienating France and Germany over the Iraq War.

Indeed. The rest of the world, and many at home, are quick eager to criticize. It's not new -- if anything, it should be expected regardless of who is president.