The Skeptics

'America First' Protectionist Policies Could Endanger National Security

Mutually desired things, from coveted land to scarce resources, may be profitably traded or negotiated for, but might still provide occasion for wars to be fought, as they have for most of human history. Uncertainty is critical. The contestants may misconstrue or misunderstand what the other party is willing to accept in a negotiated settlement, or the lengths that they will go to secure similar ends if they perceive themselves to be at a disadvantage.

University of Virginia Professor Dale Copeland explains that states dependent upon commerce for access to critical resources will react differently depending upon their expectations for the future. “When a dependent state has positive expectations, it is more likely to see all the benefits of continuing the current peace and all the opportunity costs of turning to war,” Copeland writes in Economic Interdependence and War.

What are the world’s expectations with respect to the United States’ commitment to free trade? President Trump has dropped some of his harshest protectionist rhetoric of the campaign—backing away, for example, from his pledge to label China a currency manipulator, and postponing a decision to renegotiate or even withdraw from NAFTA—but he did quit the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and seems to retain his long-standing skepticism of the benefits of global commerce.

Critics of President Trump’s trade views shouldn’t focus merely on the economic damage that his protectionist policies are likely to cause. They should also consider how less trade between nations increases the likelihood of war.

Christopher Preble is vice president for defense and foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute and the author of The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous, and Less Free.

Image: LPG tanker Happy Bride. Pixabay/Public domain

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