Alfonse D'Amato

A new playbook for American diplomacy

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President Trump’s travels last week stirred the diplomatic world on two fronts. First, he stopped in Canada for the G-7 leaders’ conference, and held firm in his insistence on “fair trade” for U.S. manufacturers and farmers. Then he headed to Singapore to open a peace offensive with North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un. In both cases, the president wasn’t following the usual U.S. playbook for such meetings, but in both cases his bold moves deserve support.

On trade, Trump is right to vigorously protest the lopsided nature of the U.S. trading relationship with Europe and our Canadian and Mexican neighbors. He has been consistent in demanding more balanced trade with these countries, as well as China. He has come to the defense of American steel and aluminum producers who suffer from unfair below-cost dumping of these key manufacturing materials. And, more recently, Trump has raised legitimate questions about the imbalanced tariffs imposed by our trading partners on U.S.-produced autos and American dairy products.

The president is right when he says that German auto tariffs of 10 percent on American-made cars, versus 2.5 percent U.S. auto import tariffs, are unfair. There’s no good reason why German auto manufacturers couldn’t build more of their cars here in the U.S. rather than shipping them in from Germany. American auto manufacturing costs and quality are highly competitive.

If Trump makes good on imposing a 25 percent tariff on imported German cars, it would be a powerful incentive for the German car companies to make their cars here for the American market. The best answer, of course, would for Germany to voluntarily reduce its auto exports to the U.S. while simultaneously increasing production of vehicles in the U.S.

And the president is on the mark when he calls out Canada for 270 percent tariffs on American dairy products. Free trade is a two-way street, but Canada has regularly gone too far in protecting its agricultural producers, with both excessive tariffs on imports and generous subsidies for exports. The North American Free Trade Agreement was supposed to redress these imbalances, but it hasn’t, and it should be renegotiated for a fairer deal for U.S. businesses and workers.

What won’t help in this battle on trade is our taking our eye off the ultimate goal and engaging in overheated rhetoric with our trading partners. Calling Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “dishonest and weak,” as Trump did after the G-7 summit, was counterproductive. And when White House Trade Adviser Peter Navarro said that there’s “a special place in hell” for Trudeau for challenging higher U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from Canada, he did the president no favor. Trade negotiations are bruising enough without adding schoolyard insults.

What will work is hanging tough on these trade talks until better deals can be struck. The past several presidents, Democratic and Republican, have been straitjacketed by their unquestioning devotion to “free trade,” even as the U.S. suffered from one-sided trade agreements costing American workers their jobs. The voters in the swath of industrial and agricultural states who handed Trump the presidency now have a champion in him, and if he plays his cards right, their support will be rewarded with improved business and job growth.

On North Korea, the president has also been engaged in a negotiating gambit decidedly at odds with old-school ways of diplomacy. But those old ways likewise produced no tangible results, instead allowing North Korea to build a sizable nuclear arsenal and the missiles that can carry nukes to the American mainland. So Trump’s tactic of first talking tough about North Korea, and then opening the door to negotiations, made good sense. He may have rattled Kim just enough to persuade him that talking with the U.S. is better than fighting it.

Based on what I’m told by experts on North Korea, I don’t believe we can be too sure that Kim will ultimately move away from his dependence on nuclear weapons to keep himself in power. But by pausing upcoming U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises, Trump gave Kim an opening to move to denuclearize, and to concentrate on resuscitating North Korea’s moribund economy. And along with this incentive comes the ultimate reality that if North Korea chooses to continue down its old path, it may still face the “fire and fury” the president promised.

War or peace? It’s Kim’s choice to make.

Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column? ADAmato@liherald.com.