VISION QUEST

Will free trade or nationalism win out?

Obsession
"America First"
Obsession
"America First"

This week, US president Donald Trump warned of a looming clash of civilizations. The Western world faces existential threats, and may not have the “will to survive,” he told an audience in Warsaw.

Meanwhile, in Brussels, leaders from the European Union and Japan haggled over cheese (paywall). They also signed the outline of a major free-trade deal: Tariffs will be slashed for parmesan in Japan and Toyotas in Europe.

Same day, radically different visions for the future world order.

The key players in these dramas have since decamped to Hamburg for the G20 summit, a showcase of “multilateralism versus multipolarity.” Consensus about anything, not least the merits of trade, will be elusive.

The Europeans and Japanese are fresh from signing an agreement that covers a third of the global economy, creating a free-trade area that rivals NAFTA in size. Canada inked a similar deal with the EU not long ago. Germany’s Angela Merkel, Canada’s Justin Trudeau, and France’s Emmanuel Macron continue to extol the value of international cooperation—synchronized global growth, propelled by unexpectedly perky trade, helps them make their case.

For now. Trump scotched trade talks with a group of Asian countries early in his term, and isn’t too keen on NAFTA, either. He’s now threatening tariffs on steel imports, which would spark retaliation by trading partners. Still, the essence of his “America First” policies are cheered by fellow populists, like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan (among others), who are emboldened to promote their own varieties of muscular, identity-based nationalism.

At the moment, neither approach is assured the upper hand. Trump’s tariffs could end up hurting workers at home, and antagonize key allies like China, whose help he seeks to rein in North Korea. Macron’s zeal for reform is sure to meet stiff resistance, with critics keen to pounce if the young leader’s style isn’t backed by substance. Today’s upside-down geopolitical environment also creates unusual, unsteady alliances: One of the American administration’s ideological allies routinely hacks and humiliates it, while free traders in Europe and elsewhere keenly court communists in Beijing (paywall).

Is there a renewed vigor in world trade? Is globalization going in reverse? Yes, on both counts.

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