Trump’s trade czar, the latest architect of imperial disaster
Part 1 of this series analyzed the concept of geopolitics, and traced its history as personified by five would-be “grandmasters of the universe.” This article concludes the series by examining the geopolitics of US President Donald Trump’s trade war.
The key player here is a dissident economist and failed California politician named Peter Navarro, who has parlayed his hostility toward China into the role of key architect of Trump’s trade war against Beijing. Like his Russian counterpart Alexander Dugin, one of the men featured in Part 1, Navarro is another in a long line of intellectuals whose embrace of geopolitics changed the trajectory of his career.
Raised by a single mom who worked secretarial jobs to rent one-bedroom apartments where he slept on the couch, Navarro went to Tufts University on a scholarship and earned a doctorate in economics from Harvard. Despite that Ivy League degree, he remained an angry outsider, denouncing the special interests “stealing America” in his first book and later, as a business professor at the University of California-Irvine, branding San Diego developers “punks in pinstripes.”
A passionate environmentalist, in 1992 Navarro plunged into politics as a Democratic candidate for mayor of San Diego, denouncing his opponent’s husband as a convicted drug-money launderer and losing when he smirked as she wept during their televised debate.
For the next 10 years, Navarro fought losing campaigns for everything from city council to Congress. He detailed his crushing defeat for a seat in the House of Representatives in a tell-all book, San Diego Confidential, that dished out disdain for that duplicitous “sellout” Bill Clinton, dumb “blue-collar detritus” voters, and just about everybody else as well.
After his last losing campaign for city council, Navarro spent a decade churning out books attacking a new enemy: China. His first “shock and awe” jeremiad in 2006 told horror stories about that country’s foreign trade; five years later, Death by China was filled with torrid tales of “bone-crushing, cancer-causing, flammable, poisonous, and otherwise lethal products” from that land.
In 2015, a third book turned to geopolitics, complete with carefully drawn maps and respectful references to Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan (see Part 1), to offer an analysis of how China’s military was pursuing a relentless strategy of “anti-access, area denial” to challenge the US Navy’s control over the Western Pacific.
To check China, the Pentagon then had two competing strategies – “Air-Sea Battle,” in which China’s satellites were to be blinded, knocking out its missiles, and “Offshore Control,” in which China’s entire coastline was to be blockaded by mining six maritime choke points from Japan to Singapore. Both, Navarro claimed, were fatally flawed.
Given that, Navarro’s third book and a companion film (endorsed by one Donald Trump) asked: What should the United States do to check Beijing’s aggression and its rise as a global power? Since all US imports from China, Navarro suggested, were “helping to finance a Chinese military buildup,” the only realistic solution was “the imposition of countervailing tariffs to offset China’s unfair trade practices.”
Just a year after reaching that controversial conclusion, Navarro joined the Trump election campaign as a policy adviser and then, after the November 2016 victory, became a junior member of the White House economic team.
As a protectionist in an administration initially dominated by globalists, he would be excluded from high-level meetings and, according to Time magazine, “required to copy chief economic adviser Gary Cohn on all his emails.” By February 2018, however, Cohn was on his way out and Navarro had become assistant to the president, with his new trade office now the co-equal of the National Economic Council.
As the chief defender of Trump’s belief that “trade wars are good and easy to win,” Navarro has finally realized his own geopolitical dream of attempting to check China with tariffs. In March, the US president slapped heavy ones on Chinese steel imports and, just a few weeks later, promised to impose more of them on US$50 billion worth of imports.
When those started in July, China’s leaders retaliated against what they called “typical trade bullying,” imposing similar duties on American goods. Despite a warning from the US Federal Reserve chairman that “trade tensions … could pose serious risks to the US and global economy,” with Navarro at his elbow, Trump escalated in September, adding tariffs on an additional $200 billion in Chinese goods and threatening another $267 billion worth if China dared retaliate. Nonetheless, Beijing hit back, this time on just $60 billion in goods since 95% of all US imports had already been covered.
Then something truly surprising happened. In September, the US trade deficit with China ballooned to $305 billion for the year, driven by an 8% surge in Chinese imports – a clear sign that Navarro’s bold geopolitical vision of beating Beijing into submission with tariffs had collided big time with the complexities of world trade.
Whether this tariff dispute will fizzle out inconsequentially or escalate into a full-blown trade war, wreaking havoc on global supply chains and the world economy, none of us can yet know, particularly that would-be geopolitical grandmaster Peter Navarro.
The desire to be grandmaster of the universe
Though such experts usually dazzle the public and the powerful alike with erudition and boldness of vision, their geopolitical moves often have troubling long-term consequences.
Mahan’s plans for Pacific dominion through offshore bases created a strategic conundrum that plagued US defense policy for a half-century. Zbigniew Brzezinski’s geopolitical lunge at the Soviet Union’s soft Central Asian underbelly helped unleash radical Islam.
Today, Alexander Dugin’s use of geopolitics to revive Russia’s dominion over Eurasia has placed Moscow on a volatile collision course with Europe and the United States. Simultaneously, Peter Navarro’s bold gambit to contain China’s military and economic push into the Pacific with a trade war could, if it persists, produce untold complications for our globalized economy.
No matter how deeply flawed such geopolitical visions may ultimately prove to be, their brief moments as official policy have regularly shaped the destiny of nations and of empires in unpredictable, unplanned, and often dangerous ways.
And no matter how this current round of geopolitical gambits plays out, we can be reasonably certain that, in the not-too-distant future, another would-be grandmaster will embrace this seductive concept to guide his bold bid for global power.
Copyright 2018 Alfred W. McCoy