Playing Good Neighbors
By Gary Burrows
Among the movies playing at local multiplexes in the States this summer is Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, a documentary on Fred Rogers, an empathetic creator and host of a legendary American children’s show. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood started in 1968, attempting to teach tots civility and self-esteem during one of the tumultuous times in U.S. history.
Although poignant on its own terms, with the story of an ordained minister who helped kids navigate racism, war, divorce, oppression, assassination – the worst of human nature – the filmmakers obviously are making links to a world under a siege of parallel proportions.
As a global neighbor, Donald Trump has ordered everyone off his lawn.
As Breakbulk went to press, the aftershocks were already rumbling from Trump making good on his threat to impose tariffs on US$34 billion worth of Chinese goods. As China declared that the U.S. “has launched the biggest trade war in economic history,” it quickly retaliated with a commensurate amount of tariffs on American goods.
Trump promised to up the ante with another US$16 billion in tariffs, and threatened to escalate tariffs on as much as US$450 billion, according to reports.
Less than a month earlier he left in shambles U.S. relations with the world’s leading nations. Having already imposed tariffs on foreign steel, aluminum and other manufactured goods from the European Union, China and his North American neighbors, Trump goaded his Group of Seven partners with the choice of further tariffs or to simply cease trading with them, before he boarded Air Force One to meet with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but the image of Trump “negotiating” with the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the UK leaves one speechless.
As the NATO summit in Brussels approached, who knows whatever divisiveness will rear its ugly head? There should be no surprises at the former reality show mogul’s actions, as he ran for the U.S. presidency promising such outrage.
The problem is, Trump’s actions promise to unravel world trade just as the project cargo industry seems to be finally righting itself after its historic downturn over the last several years.
While he attempts to apply punitive pressure on its trade competitors, U.S. companies are feeling the sting as manufacturers step forward to show how US$75 billion in tariffs imposed on the U.S. are putting them at a disadvantage as increasing costs of parts and materials make their finished products uncompetitive in the global market.
Trump’s beef with China has a legitimate basis: the World Trade Organization partner has long demonstrated a pattern of unfair trade practices and pilfering U.S. intellectual property.
But as China continues to shift its role as a leading economic power, progress has been made through conventional trade forums, while the opposite is already true of Trump’s get-tough policy. As China progresses with global partners in its Belt and Road Initiative, and it grows its own market as a source for manufactured goods, its stature grows unabated.
Everything about Trump’s presidential tenure has been unprecedented. From his reality TV days, Trump hit upon the conclusion that “dividing people is more profitable than uniting them,” as one writer posited.
The thing about precedent, though, is that it is tethered to history and to familiar processes and protocols that provide the means to productively discuss and reach compromise. It’s also a fragile environment where a bullish, winner-take-all approach leaves everything in shards.
Trump tweets with hyperbole that the system is already broken and he alone knows the way to save the day. He defiantly stares down his global partners and expects them to blink. But at the same time, his bullying in global channels throws up barriers to negotiation while those within his own administration squabble about how to proceed.
All of this picks at the last thread of optimism the project industry has clung to that a turnaround is at hand.
But then any hand-wringing may be wasted worry and, like his TV show, Trump may have the showstopper to pull out the perfect ending just before the credits roll.
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