Trade-wars and making of meaning

How to cite this journal: Author, Date of the post, WMO Conflict Insight, Title of the post, ISSN:

We need new solutions and new economic thinking – old thinking brings old solutions. Economics is still about resources of production – access to those, value-adding, and arbitrage.

If policies and actions are not to lead to a loss for oneself in a modern interconnected environment it is important to realize that real economics is not a zero-sum game. What are our aims and objectives? What do they take into consideration? We live on a living planet. And even though we try to translate all value into money it is evident that money is too limited as an explanation for value or an expression of it. Trade has been the de-facto solution to amp up living standards everywhere, the case in point so obvious; that the more access there is to a variety of solutions the better. Why then would anybody want to wage a trade war if it decreases trade and then solutions? What is a trade war?

The modern discussion is focused on the U.S. – China relations and “trade war” often in relation to the U.S. trade deficit and U.S discussion regarding it. The U.S. has been spending and owes more than its yearly GDP; actually spending on credit.  China also has a massive debt with debt considered at more than 300% of its GDP; notice that the “trade war” with the U.S. has slowed some debt easing measures of China. Chinese debt is often not issued as we are used to in more northern economical systems. Please read a further description of that angle which may add to the problems in understanding the specific pressures of the Chinese debt, if interested, via a reference in the footnotes: ”Potential bad [Chinese] debts are corporate, not household, debts and were made at the direction of the state—by state-controlled banks to state-owned enterprises. This provides the state with the ability to manage the timing and pace of recognition of nonperforming loans“. That China is not fully a market economy is being played out to China‘s advantage regarding its debt.

To owe others money always implies a dependency – if the dependency is too big it implies a loss of self-determination just as when individuals in the past could not pay up and had their whole families sold or taken into slavery with themselves included, irrespective of their race, religion or another background. That loss of autonomy can be one of the issues surrounding a trade war – that a government is aiming to curb expenditure via trade limiting measures, perhaps in the hope of decreasing spending in the country or to generate additional revenue through tariffs. Yet currently only slight decreases have happened in both U.S. exports as well as imports. One aim with increasing tariffs could exactly be the hope of extra government revenue to meet the debt.

Self-determination is considered important for Western Civilization and trade – it is, for instance, one of the central elements in the thesis of the controversial Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson who sees self-determination or the personhood as a basis for Western Civilization based on the idea of God in people and human potential based on the creative expression of that: With then property rights, law and trade (as modern corporations) arriving from that ideological influence in some measure. To lose self-determination because of debt is considered as a type of annihilation and very shameful, and currently most countries in the world seem to be neck-deep in debt. The U.S. owes the most of countries, with even many middle-class Americans having had financial difficulty for years. While China has been succeeding in lifting people out of poverty and actively been creating a middle class.

Self-determination is also a cornerstone of the “American culture” as indicated by the perhaps now outdated “American dream” – or “the dead American dream” as among other things debt and income inequality, the opioid and drug crisis, and other problems in the U.S. stall many an individual in development and self-determination. The cornerstone of that said dream was “opportunity” and the potential of “social mobility”; the American dream ideal of a strong consumeristic middle class and upward social mobility, which doesn’t seem to work when so many are left out – even almost or completely the whole middle class itself.

This specific “American dream” has had a strong effect in Scandinavia and Europe since before WWII. American ideals had a big impact in Europe where she was still having after-effects in her social structure of former times with warlords, tribes, royal houses, and feudal ties  – ties that were transformed in the U.S. that provided for other ideas by shaking up the social structure. A multiplicity of immigrants in the U.S. migrations into the lands of the natives who used to be the keepers of the western mainland transformed post-European social structure by diverse groups with diffused cultural roots. In the aftermath of WWII, the important U.S. emphasized ideas of personal and financial liberty had evermore of an effect in Nordic/Scandinavian countries and Europe as economic and other ties grew ever stronger towards the U.S. As signified by NATO. 

What is a trade war? Who is defending what or attacking for what?

Views of events and actions do matter and have an effect on understanding, definitions, and interpretation as well as communication. Such effects of personal, or group interpretation can even be seen in the simplest of acts as reading descriptions and another making of meaning.

A historical case in point may be that when the West or the U.S. territory was taken, as now seen by many as taken from the native Americans that transformation was not considered a war even though battles were fought –   what happened was considered with words as “migration” or “a gold rush” irrespective of inhuman acts by the then U.S. governments or others. 

People migrated in search of a place to make a living.  Nowadays it is hard to migrate to any place to make it fresh. People have multiplied on the planet the world population growth since 1800 has been approximately sevenfold. 

Taking the context of modern political correctness, human rights, and the dignity of all people into question, war and other similar happenings are presently viewed differently from in the past especially in relation to the potential use of nuclear arms.  To take from others seems to be a less viable strategy for continued survival. 

Yet, migration even though it might have driven out certain people groups to grant others access to natural resources it is not even though of in connection to fundamental economic realities viewed as a “trade war”. Nevertheless, such a trade war can still perhaps exactly best be understood with such events in mind. The access to a “place” to make a living on the earth or in society or with natural resources in view – to protect, maintain or gain control of factors of production and markets.

A trade war would be by definition mostly about rising quotas and tariffs with a protectionist aim regarding a nation’s industries which has been retaliated by increases in tariffs and or quotas by others; that escalation then considered to be the war in question. In such a way a trade war revolves around perceived control – to put the brakes on something; making tariffs and other barriers higher. Possibly such control is sought in the hope of increasing export and decreasing imports or for creating competitive barriers for market entry. That is to increase one’s own significance and to decrease one’s dependencies on others. 

In his book “An Ethic for The Age of Space” Lawrance Leshan Ph.D. points to the futility of such isolationistic thinking in modern times because of the reality of global interconnectedness that cannot be reversed – it is actually manifest in the biosphere and is an actuality to be dealt with and thought from: impossible to deny. Protectionist measures aim for control among other things of the resources of production or an internal market for the perceived increased self-sufficiency and safety based on that control – however strong it may be in view of Ph.D. Lawshan’s work it can be said that such safety cannot exist, that it is impossible to withdraw from the interconnectedness of things. 

The aims of increased self-sufficiency by the initiators of protectionism have to be based on what they consider useful and not self-harm. A policy leading to a trade war is not based on capitalism in the sense of free markets – it is by nature protectionist; it is designed to close off some types of trade.  The protectionist ideas steam from older days when nations were developing and mercantilist ideas flourished built on the idea that to gain was at others expense. Empires were built on consolidation, trade, and raiding others – as the Roman Empire and the British Empire. 

Can the same hold true for trade wars? Are they dangerous? Do they lead to polarization and death?

The Foundation for Economic Education states that they do. In an article named “Trade Wars Lead to Shooting Wars and Depressions”. The thesis being that a protectionist policy can hinder trade in such a way that populations suffer – and then the pain of that suffering can lead to revolt that will manifest in armed conflict. Empire building then leads to suffering.

As we live in an interconnected world, that interconnectedness is apparent in many things as the ideas the European Union is based on: economic integration and increased unity to prevent war to ravage Europe again as it did in the Second World War. However, though the EU may help with peace in Europe it will not work fully if viewed as an Empire building for the said reasons; the interconnectedness is such. If someone on the globe suffers in such a way as that suffering promotes violence that can affect all and quickly in a nuclear age. A trade war viewed in terms of that interconnectedness brings many questions. Can it be a viable policy? Does protectionism work to protect industries so that they can increase their competitive advantage?

The U.S. claims to be protecting U.S.-based innovation and thought …property rights, rights of design, methods, and processes. Claiming that China has been using “too much” industrial espionage.

When has protectionism worked?

The answer might be when the ownership of the means of production mattered for someone and innovation and production needed to be fenced-off to generate sufficient know-how and growth to maintain the comparative advantage. A case in point is that in Iceland the people and nation have aimed to protect fisheries from foreign ownership in the hope of maintaining wealth creation within the country and social welfare. If that has worked is up to dispute because of how some more fortunate Icelanders have been massively using off-shore accounts to avoid taxation; as reviled in the “Panama Papers”. Likely the answer is not totally black and white. It can be thought obvious that if the Icelandic fisheries had been sold to foreigners when the nation was poorer the then local population would likely have been much more deprived of its profits similar to the fate of poor people groups who as the Native American Indians were left bereft no matter the riches of the country they used to feel was their own. This case in point shows that ownership and control matter. It matters especially to the one in control – if that one who is in control is neck-deep in debt that said control can be at serious risk. 

What world do we live in? How do we want to treat other individuals? Or nations? What boundaries do we consider? Such questions run deep. Such questions are important for context. Perhaps protectionism makes sense when aiming to reach or keep control of certain markets or properties?

In the West (or South) in the early 20th century or just before it if somebody struck oil, as in Texas, such a person could become wealthy but that wealth was fully dependent on trade – infrastructure and the development of a market.  A market of various types of consumers; industry, business, and individual households was necessary. The stories of the Texas tycoons show how access to a natural resource with the development of trade channels and value-chains can direct wealth. Had the markets been closed off, the trade channels or value channels would not have opened up in the same way. Before oil had its industrial applications it was not such a sought resource.

This case shows us also that if somebody would have kept too tight of control closing the foreign oil trade – oil could not have become such a sought-after commodity. I.e. Icelanders have relayed upon foreign trade with their fish to bring in export income, they have even gone so far as times exporting their best produce to consume more of leftover fish themselves. If the Icelanders would have maintained ownership of their fisheries and forbidden export of fish or hindered it at the same time the fisheries would not have become the wealth generators they have been bringing currently at around 38% of the country’s export income and formerly more.

Trade and well-being

The well-being of the people is dependent on factors such as meaning and the quality of relationships. A central question becomes if the wellbeing of one group of people needs to imply the loss of the wellbeing of another group. Scarcity is a basic premise in most economic theory – necessitating a fierce view of the competitive nature of reality. It is a very materialistic concept perhaps ignoring time and the fact that humans are embedded in a living environment. What is crucial in view of the concept of scarcity is control – the control of resources, production mechanisms, and products. Maybe the real or most important scarcity is not necessarily in resources or production but the life of individuals or the life span of specific individuals or groups. And then their view or possible reality regarding their lives and livelihoods being potentially or actually threatened by others: “For blue-collar America, “Made in China” became synonymous with the ravages of globalization.“

“Can we all eat the same piece of cake?” That question signifies the zero-sum, static wealth view of economics that is standardly refuted by economists. We live in a living system – where if we take good care of resources and learn how to best utilize them we have hope of increased overall benefit by the gain of the one. Still…who gets to call the shots? Especially where more people are making demands? And thus there must be more pressure on leaders to provide for those who influence them?

Political policymaking 

The political policy can fail even when based upon “the far from scientific ideas of economics”. The ideas of economics applied in politics have failed to be in tune with human realities and the natural environment, they have been unworkable at times or not had their idealized results. A 2016 Forbes article states that economics don’t work and argued its case and an opinion piece in The Guardian from this year does the same. Given that critique of economics as a discipline might even just be marginally true we have to look in different ways for “facts” to base our policies on. In this world where most value has been tied to money and people cannot migrate to look for a free country they are in fact stuck in an economic system – increasing pressures!

Economists have lost the trust of politicians, they have failed as experts and politicians have lost the trust of the public.  The average person doesn’t understand what is going on – but then again who does? 

There are great difficulties that have not been solved. “The notion that public figures and professionals are basically trustworthy has been integral to the health of representative democracies“, and trust in the elites has evaporated even from within its own social strata, along with trusts in institutions. Especially institutions supposedly presenting stability, honesty, and value; as the media and banks. Further “threat comes from individuals taking advantage of their authority for personal gain.“Loss of trust among U.S. citizens in the institutions and politics of its country has not been measured as declining as fast as now, while the Chinese seem to be getting more optimistic regarding theirs.

Still, the statistics show that life on the planet has improved. For instance, 300.000 people get access to clean water and electricity every day, conflicts decrease along with a decrease in global poverty, child mortality falls and life expectancy rises with more. Modern problems are complex needing social and other innovation that comes more likely from decentralized sources than directly from the government. Nevertheless, the discussion is with the expectancy for government to provide solutions. Lobbying and other pressures on the present governance system keep the pressure on. Also in international relations.

Perhaps we need to change the outlook to understand a “trade war”? 

One of the main problems in politics may be the need to maintain social justification or legitimization in representative democratizes. This can shape how things are tackled and what informs the discussion. Sometimes this is bluntly related to the pursuit of or the maintenance of power as exemplified in The Prince and discussion of Machiavellian politics. Where Machiavelli’s virtù is indicating that in politics or other areas of life as warfare it is judged natural to throw out normal self-restraint and ethics. In such a case it is considered that force or cunning is paramount. Such views may be based on fear as indicated by the research of Sheldon Solomon. The fear of death.The fear of one’s own perceived helplessness. That fear may well be justified. 

In a number of interesting articles in the Financial TimesPhilip Stephens writes on these very issues in relation to the U.S. foreign policy and the U.S. – China trade war: His conclusions are that the U.S. is more geographically secure than China and that China paradoxically in light of its governance system might become a free-trade champion as China is in his view more dependent on international trade than many including the U.S. He also states that it is noteworthy that the Trump administration has merged “America’s economic policy with its national security strategy” ….as  when a U.S. Secretary of the Treasury was asked about what the U.S. could do about the Turkish invasion into Syria he had stated that the U.S. could shut down the Turkish economy. Merging these two policy areas merges the thought of trade and death.  Such a merged view may be natural in view of natural resources and survival showing us the crux of the matter.

In these articles, important facts are mentioned in context as that the U.S. dollar has a unique role in the world economy being the largest reserve currency where countries can face the risk of not accessing dollars if brushing the U.S. administration the wrong way. The Trump Administration seems to some to be revoking “Cold-War” themes this time directed against the Chinese, others state that China is behaving in ways that are threatening. The rapid military growth and technology empowerment of China has unsettled U.S. policymakers. While there is a bigger trade, dependency, and money connection going than was formerly regarding the USSR. The Chinese, for instance, are the majority customer of jets from Boeing and the U.S. was the main importer of Chinese goods in 2018 in terms of dollar value. China aims to make its currency a stronger force in international trade and a stronger player as a reserve currency. China is currently the biggest holder of “foreign countries” in its share of U.S. debt with Japan following closely.” China hence owns a lot of U.S. Treasury debt – lending money to the US government – one reason being that export industries earn enormous sums of foreign currency that has to be invested somewhere.“ Also, China is loaning the U.S. so that the U.S. in part indirectly also can keep buying Chinese goods! If China would sell this debt quickly it could seriously hurt the country’s exports by hurting the worldwide economy. Anyways, China holds the rains of this debt and can sell it if pressed.

The U.S. is very much dependent on China, both in that the Chinese own the majority of U.S. debt but also in that the U.S. import the most valuable share of Chinese exports. That dependency may have evoked hostilities:

There is even “The Committee on The Present Danger China” lunched in march 2019 with the mission: “to help defend America through public education and advocacy against the full array of conventional and non-conventional dangers posed by the People’s Republic of China. As with the Soviet Union in the past, Communist China represents an existential and ideological threat to the United States and to the idea of freedom—one that requires a new American consensus regarding the policies and priorities required to defeat this threat. And for this purpose, it is necessary to bring to bear the collective skills, expertise, and energies of a diverse group of experts on China, national security practitioners, human rights and religious freedom activists, and others who have joined forces under the umbrella of the “Committee on Present Danger: China.”

China is considered at odds with values in the U.S. regarding individual freedoms. And ideas and behavior regarding property rights and other factors related to how a society is organized. The Chinese themselves react against the above-mentioned Committee with a call for deeds that would benefit U.S.-China relations and “peace, stability, and prosperity of the world”. To some as written about in an article in the Diplomat published in July 2019 named “The US Scare Campaign Against China”   the U.S. rhetoric seems to very much be an oversell of the danger of the Chinese. In the said article it is stated that any threat of the Chinese pales in comparison with the former threat of the USSR. Yet, all may not be so smooth as for instance German industry now complains loudly about China not allowing foreign companies the same competitive inroads as the Chinese themselves seem to enjoy in many foreign countries. The Chinese have also been overtaking formerly domestically owned companies aggressively restructuring their management in the German view. That Germans, French, and Italians mention risks of technology know-how outflow and espionage regarding the Chinese. This in fact mirroring the U.S. concerns that are present; the risk of espionage, subversion, and foreign interference.

“Germany was also one of the initiators (besides France and Italy) of a broader legislative project at the EU level that aims to provide a solid legal footing in EU law for monitoring and restricting state-directed foreign investments in sensitive European industries, with the primary aim of controlling Chinese FDI. In February, the European Parliament approved the relevant legislation for an EU-wide framework for foreign investment review. The endorsement of the EU Council at ministerial level followed in early March.“

The Chinese might not need to overthrow the current world organization it seems to have been working well for the Chinese even though they seek to transform it. They have managed to bring their population benefits through trade as best seen through the emergence of the Chinese middle class. Are they more aggressive now when they are doing better? Is the economic situation in Europe and America currently harder than before making policymakers there more sensitive?

The Chinese 2017 Intelligence law

There is a Chinese law referred to as the Chinese Intelligence law that came into enforcement in July 2017 that may be one immense factor explaining the US and now European reactions to the Chinese lately. That law according to commentators overnight changed all Chinese firms and people into active spies. The Chinese state demands full cooperation of companies and citizens:

The Intelligence Law… repeatedly obliges individuals, organizations, and institutions to assist Public Security and State Security officials in carrying out a wide array of “intelligence” work. Article Seven stipulates that “any organization or citizen shall support, assist, and cooperate with state intelligence work according to law.” Dr. Murray Scott Tanner

In light of this, it is important to note that the West is not devoted to its intelligence operations. It can be in dispute how related for instance American firms can be to the security faculties of the U.S. state. There is not a similar overall direct claim as in the Chinese Intelligence law on assistance in espionage or intelligence work to all diverse U.S. firms, while there are still operational connections. Commentators have stated that corporations as Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and others are somehow being used by U.S. intelligence for data mining, and whatever the full extent to such claims it is right that U.S. companies may need to hand over data to authorities related to intelligence work. Further, for instance, mutual investment from Google and the intelligence community is at hand in a company called Recorded Future which is for web monitoring being a case in point. An article in CBS news even had the title; “Social Media Is a Tool For the CIA: Seriously”. It is true that, for instance, the famous In-Q-Tel corporation’s“ mission is to foster the development of new and emerging information technologies and pursue research and development (R&D) that produce solutions to some of the most difficult IT problems facing the CIA.“The U.S. has for long utilized private corporations in its military complex. Things are not always straight forward as seen by the issues surrounding Facebook and possible Russian influence on U.S. elections. For all countries then the Internet of Things can make all of this more complex, cyber issues are prime Intelligence issues.

Again we come to the question of what is a “trade war”? Why is it important? What pressures are at play?

It is indicated in an article in the Spectator that American businesses and people have become over-focused on appearances – branding, marketing, and pretense while others have stayed more at “making things best”.  The article further states that President Trump doesn’t believe in the “myth of infinite American power”.

What has it to do with other countries? The “trade war” is not a modern thing – it builds on the steps of finding a place to make a living, migrations, war, and access to resources, production value chains, and the different geographic cost of labor. “Trade-war” is nowadays to be seen in the light of the increased pressures due to the increased global population and less available freedom for many in terms of finding their own factors of production as people might have done formerly by migration. There is a need to find viable ways of coexisting and cooperating.  A “trade war” is not a “shooting war”. It is a showing off–off teeth and a question of power in alliances in economic production and living standards. It is a trial at consolidating oneself against perceived threats. It is not possible in a short article like this one to come to final conclusions. I have aimed to show some of the factors involved from a deeper perspective. The Chinese may just be applying their natural strategic thought in aiming to gain an advantage with combined factors where the West is more diversified. It is exactly in that diversification the value difference is appearing. Free trade and interdependencies are held to work against “shooting wars” as exemplified by the EU. China and the U.S. are very connected through debt and trade. China benefits from the U.S. buying the most from itself in dollar value. The Chinese currently hold the highest share of U.S. debt which may not be as serious of a concern as the amount of debt itself as so far U.S. debt has been very sellable worldwide and is still somewhat diversified in ownership. Matters as intellectual property, industrial and other espionage, and control of production factors are all in question as central themes. The reader is encouraged to pay attention to developments and not to draw quick conclusions. 


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This Post Has One Comment

  1. Daniel Erdmann

    Dear Finnur,

    thank you these insights and perspectives. I truly like the section where you discribe that trade-war is not new, and even less on a global level. I am very pleased to read that you unveiled that trade-war is and can be a motivation for things like: doing a living, increase the number of political supporters, initiate im/migration, etc. If we create a trade-war map, we would discover something interesting. Obviously, there are conflicts that we are well aware of, while others do not get the same level of media attention and are therefore less known. Only at this level we can see that, due to svengalis, supporters and the trend to build alliances, pretty much all contries are somehow involved in a trade-war of only two nations. Due to global alliances, contracted partners, who are more likely of a passive character without being directly involved in the conflcit of a party A and B, still become directly involved.

    It is hard to differ between a trade-war and an armed war. To me, the key word remains ‘war’. It is not unrealistic that a trade-war’s process is financed by selling arms to a war zone or a conflicted area. We all know that war in its most complex meaning is the highest profit generating industry on our planet. And the trade-war more often than not ends up in our livingrooms, when parents fight against commercials, trying to offer their children a media-free time without cellphones, computers, and alien thoughts that manipulate the consumers to buy products from the so called ‘golden west’ and the ‘cold east’.

    BR, Daniel Erdmann

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