President Donald Trump's trade war has disrupted international supply chains, raised prices for the raw materials used by American manufacturers, caused some businesses to shut down or to lay off workers, and forced others to come to Washington to beg for their survival.
But now the tariffs are causing pain for someone who really matters: Donald Trump.
Trump tweeted Friday that, as a consequence of the escalating trade war between the U.S. and China, Chinese officials are no longer pressuring North Korea to shut down its nuclear weapons program.
Trump has tried to take most of the credit for the recent eased tensions between North Korea and the U.S., but there's no mistaking the fact that China plays an important role in how the world deals with North Korea. China is North Korea's main trading partner and its primary supplier of food and energy. As such, it can put a unique kind of pressure on Kim's regime.
But with the White House seemingly determined to hit half (or maybe all) of Chinese imports with tariffs before the end of the year, the Chinese government has apparently stopped its backchannel efforts to get North Korea to denuclearize. Or at least that's what Trump says:
…Additionally, because of our much tougher Trading stance with China, I do not believe they are helping with the process of denuclearization as they once were (despite the UN Sanctions which are in place)…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 24, 2018
Despite the flippant way he delivered the news, this is no small admission from Trump. Recall the amount of pomp and circumstance that surrounded the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore. There were even commemorative coins minted before any deal had been struck—and there was talk, not just among Trump's right-wing media supporters but also from members of Congress, about how Trump deserved the Nobel Peace Prize for bringing North Korea to the table.
Since then? Well, the agreement seems to have been little more a flimsy, unenforceable framework. North Korea does not seem interested in full denuclearization—though they haven't carried out any new tests since the June meeting either.
Getting North Korea to denuclearize, or even merely getting them to behave in a more stable way as one of the world's accepted nuclear powers, will require sustained pressure and careful diplomatic maneuvering. The Trump administration does not seem to have the attention span for any of that, so outsourcing those efforts to China (and South Korea) makes a lot of practical sense. Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to visit Pyongyang next month to acknowledge the 70th anniversary of North Korea's founding, The Washington Post reports.
If the trade war drives a wedge between the U.S. and China on the North Korea issue—as Trump suggests it has—then the trade war might very well cost Trump one of his few true achievements in office.
There's a broader lesson here too. Trade makes the world more peaceful. Countries that do a lot of trading end up being invested in each others' interests—a result of the fact that it is people within those countries doing the trading, not the governments themselves.
An important corollary to this fact is that countries which do not trade end up not having many friends. Like North Korea. Or Cuba, which America deliberately isolated for many years as a way to punish its leaders.
China and the U.S. have 800 billion reasons to work together to solve regional and global problems—especially problems that affect both countries, such as dangerous nuclear-armed dictators. But tariffs cause geopolitical dysfunction. Trump has no one but himself to blame for the collapse of North Korean diplomacy.
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