Laborers fill orders of machine grade steel to be shipped throughout the Pacific Northwest Natalie Behring/Getty Images

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Trump and the All-American Trade Debate

Donald Trump’s recently announced tariffs on imported steel and aluminum have raised fears that his administration will roll back the rules-based free-trade system that has facilitated global commerce since World War II. But a closer examination of the history of US trade policy shows that Trump’s protectionist gambits are neither new, nor likely to have a lasting effect.

WASHINGTON, DC – For eight decades, beginning in the 1930s, the president of the United States, whoever he was, served as a vigorous promoter of free trade. During that period, American presidential leadership played a crucial role in lowering barriers to international trade, establishing global rules and organizations for cross-border commerce – particularly between countries in a growing US-sponsored trading order – and steadily expanding the volume and value of traded goods and services.

Then came Donald Trump, the first president in more than 80 years to oppose the expansion of trade. In his first year, Trump ended the United States’ participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade pact involving 12 Pacific-rim countries; initiated proceedings to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and Mexico; threatened to impose barriers against imports from China; and generally made clear that he did not share his 13 immediate predecessors’ positive attitude toward trade. Then, on March 1, he announced that he would impose tariffs on imported steel and aluminum.

The Trump presidency raises an important question for the world’s economic future: Can he – and will he – overturn the trade policies and agreements of the last 80 years, risking a costly reduction of global commerce? Some clues to answer that question can be found in Douglas A. Irwin’s Clashing Over Commerce, a monumental history of US trade policy from the colonial era to the present.

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