Trump, not Canadian auto industry, may be the threat to U.S. national security: Don Pittis

His record is hard to beat, but Donald Trump may have outdone himself with a week of chaotic policy moves. Now the world and its markets are struggling to readjust.

Claim that Canadian cars threaten U.S. security was just one in a week full of destabilizing pronouncements

U.S. President Donald Trump has declared car imports a threat to security, only one of a week's worth of destabilizing policy decisions likely to make the world less secure. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Things have officially become very frightening when the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, sounds more reasonable and peace-loving than the president of the United States.

But after another wacky week of flip-flops by U.S. President Donald Trump and policy statements characterized by Canada's level-headed foreign minister Chrystia Freeland as "frankly absurd," many — especially those in the southern part of the Korean peninsula — were thinking exactly that.

Canadian cars a security threat?

To be clear, Freeland's comment was not related to the Koreas but to the idea expressed by Trump justifying a 25 per cent duty on Canadian-produced cars on the grounds that they were a security threat.

The idea, she said, was "frankly absurd and that is a point we are making very clearly to our U.S. partners and allies."

Security threat? Canadian cars head to the U.S. As one labour leader pointed out, almost all the parts come from the United States and the U.S. retains a trade surplus. (Rebecca Cook/Reuters)

A critic might say Freeland's comments were shaped by her role as Canada's minister in charge of the NAFTA talks and that she has a vested interest in contradicting the president. But independent observers agree that playing the national security card will be dangerously destabilizing for international trade, and thus international security.

"If you do this then everybody else in the world is going to go down the same road," Jennifer Hillman, a former U.S. trade negotiator and World Trade Organization (WTO) judge, told the Financial Times.

It would seem that this is Trump's strategy: Invoking national security allows a country to abrogate other rules of the WTO based on the idea that countries in dire conflict cannot be expected to allow their own factories to supply the potential war effort of an enemy.

Revised facts

In the kind of factual revisionism we've seen in the past from this administration, U.S. economic welfare and the loss of domestic jobs are being construed as a threat to security, which may be true, but clearly not the intent of the WTO provision.

As implied by Hillman — now a specialist in trade law at Georgetown Law school in Washington, D.C. — equating economic well-being with security could offer carte blanche to any other country wanting to protect a local industry from global competition.

And you know if the U.S. actually uses it for their benefit, other countries will want to do the same for their own benefit.

Part of the through-the-looking-glass nature of Trump's latest trade gambit is that in all likelihood it will be bad for the U.S. economy and thus potentially bad for security. Markets tumbled following the presidential announcement. 

Economists almost universally agree that free trade is good for everyone and trade wars can turn into something worse.

Trade war vs real war

If it's a real war you want instead, maybe Trump's flip-flop on talks with North Korea is the answer. Heralded as a move toward peace when he surprised the world with the announcement that he would meet with Kim, last week the U.S. president surprised the world again by changing his mind.

The announcement that Trump would not be attending the planned Singapore summit came on the same day that North Korea blew up its nuclear test site in the presence of the world's news media, which made Trump's change of heart seem like a dirty trick.

The whole episode, particularly after Kim called for renewed talks, may have left the U.S. the loser.

Despite his odd haircut, it will be hard to put Kim back into his clown suit as the crazy bomb-throwing dictator, especially in South Korea where his peacemaking visit that ended the long war, plus his humorous comments, were met with widespread approval.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in laugh together during Kim's peace-making visit. (Korea Summit Press Pool/Reuters)

Contrariwise, Trump's change of heart was greeted with disappointment in South Korea where a recent Pew study of global indicators shows confidence in the U.S. presidency already at a low ebb of 17 per cent.

The litany of security mistakes continues. 

The U.S. president's renewed trade attacks on Europe and China seem to have had the opposite effect from that intended. China and Germany responded to Trump's trade scares with talk of friendlier ties.

If that wasn't enough for one week, Trump also lifted important rules on banking meant to prevent another taxpayer bailout. And he alienated a significant portion of the U.S. population by demanding a ban on kneeling during the national anthem to protest against racism.

Week of insecurity

All in all, it's been a startlingly insecure week for a president worried about security.

Building toward another bank bailout could lead to domestic outrage and revolt, not security. Inciting conflict between flag-wavers and the country's African-Americans will make everyone less secure.

As the Washington Post has pointed out, Trump has managed to offend some 90 countries with his on-again, off-again nuclear tough talk. It makes you wonder if the purpose is not security, but insecurity, as part of a justification for more military spending.

Breaking free trade, especially with Canada, will inevitably hurt the U.S. job-creation economy. Smashing the WTO could well damage economies everywhere leading to global insecurity as weakened governments crumble.

Perhaps the worst thing Trump did last week was to undermine the world's confidence in the leadership of Western capitalist democracy, helping to inspire a risky and possibly destabilizing search for leadership elsewhere.

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Don Pittis was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London. He is currently senior producer at CBC's business unit.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversationCreate account

Already have an account?