On May 31, when President Donald Trump levied tariffs on steels and aluminum imports from the European Union, Mexico, and Canada, most observers were less surprised by his actions than by his justifications for the move. Under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, Trump asserted that he was issuing the tariffs on national security grounds – the first usage of this power since 1983. What does this move say about the Trump administration’s view of trade strategy? Does the president seriously view international trade as a security threat to the United States?

President Trump is waging war on free trade like no other American president has done in recent memory. As the 2016 campaign revealed, the president views the trade practices of key international commercial partners a threat to national security and is levying tariffs on their exports in response. Such a move fittingly reflects Trump’s zero sum understanding of international politics, but also risks altering the manner in which the United States conducts international trade, by making trade a security priority – a shift that could have significant consequences for the future of U.S. alliances and the American economy moving forward.

The term national security is inherently ambiguous and, as a result, no statutory definition exists in the United States, affording the president a significant degree of latitude in defining what constitutes a threat to the nation’s security. Since World War II, the principle of open international trade has been a key feature of American foreign policy – a vehicle through which the United States could enhance bi- and multi-lateral relations through cooperation and mutual interests and, as a result, create an international system of like-minded, trade-friendly states – but has not been seen as a threat. This framework has and continues to lay the foundation for an international order that strengthens national and international security through the cultivation of cooperative relationships that draw states closer economically, culturally, and defensively. Trump’s approach to international trade, rather, is a departure from this perspective, and has explicitly identified trade as a “threat” to national security, rather than a medium for advancing security interests through positive-sum commercial relationships.

In the mid-1990s, political scientist Ole Wæver and his colleagues at the Copenhagen Peace Research Institute laid out a new theory of security that sought to challenge classical security studies thinking, they coined it “securitization theory.” They argued that the concept of “national security” is simply the construct of “securitizing actors”– those in positions of authority on security issues – who could shift a national security agenda and legitimize it through rhetoric and a captive intended audience. In essence, this theory is a version of hyper-politicization in the form of national security planning and agenda-setting. Securitization is not necessarily good or bad, but rather the exercising of power by influential actors to transform national security policy to their liking.

The theory, while subject to scholarly criticism, has previously been cited in analysis of real-world events, most notably during the Obama administration, in which climate change was “securitized.” Obama became the first sitting president to embrace climate change as a top priority – directing his Defense Department to regard the issue as a national security threat and plan accordingly. Within a relatively short period of time, climate change shifted from an issue of seemingly marginal importance during the Bush administration, who refused to implement the Kyoto Protocol, to an agenda-topping security concern, this despite nearly uniform denial from one of the two major American political parties, largely in part to the commitment of a single presidential administration.

So what does securitization tell us about President Trump’s trade agenda?

The United States, since 1945, has largely been the world’s foremost champion of free trade and open markets, a product of the post-war liberal international order of which it created. A Pew study published this year found that the U.S. imposes tariffs at one of the lowest rates in the world and that American duties have been trending downward for over eight decades. For decades, trade deals have been at the bedrock of American diplomacy, serving as the foundation for some of the America’s most valuable strategic partnerships. Since the end of the Cold War though, trade has generally been viewed as a strictly economic issue – insulated from security issues. Prior to this shift, trade was at the forefront of efforts to combat the Soviet Union, as the Cold War was as much a battle for economic supremacy as it was for military superiority. Trade deals have long been regarded as a crucial foreign policy tool, a valuable carrot that could be extended to potential allies, not a risk to the safety and security of the American people – but things have changed.

The 2016 Presidential election was a watershed moment for trade and security. Trade deals enjoyed the castigation of candidates of both major parties during the primary and general elections. Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders all campaigned against the Trans-Pacific Partnership to some degree and harshly criticized existing trade frameworks like NAFTA. To their credit, these candidates were simply capitalizing on the deeply unfavorable sensibilities of the electorate – those who perceive international trade to be the root of a decimated U.S. manufacturing industry and heavy job losses in recent decades. Unsurprisingly, given his longstanding belief that trade was disadvantageous to the United States, Trump followed through on his campaign rhetoric. Once Trump entered the Oval Office, he continued to push his anti-trade sentiments on Twitter and in public remarks, while not shying away from utilizing his tariff powers in targeting allies and adversaries alike.

The ramifications of a securitization of trade could be massive. A vast majority of U.S. alliances around the world are built on mutually beneficial economic exchange, which continues to allow the United States to remain atop the global economy. A drastic shift in consideration of  trade as a means of multilateral cooperation to an American posture that is hostile towards international trade risks a degradation of these invaluable relationships and a long-term setback in the global fight for hegemony as China ramps up its international investment and trading partnerships worldwide. Unfortunately, the conditions for such a securitization process are ripe – Trump and his advisers are quick to condemn trade as a losing battle, as other nations “take advantage” of the United States. Furthermore, a large portion of Trump’s base is avowedly anti-trade and hale from parts of the country most damaged by losses in the manufacturing industry. These loyal supporters of the president could easily serve as the legitimizing force for such a shift towards a securitized trade policy – as Republicans in Congress may be unlikely to challenge the president and risk electoral retribution.

The long-term consequences of continued hostility towards trade could spell disaster for the U.S., as its allies will have no choice but to look elsewhere for commercial relations – the massive EU-Japan trade agreement signed this year as just one example, with the potential of an American-less Trans-Pacific Partnership aligned more closely with China as another. Projections continue to suggest that the U.S. will cede its position atop the global share of GDP rankings to China in the decades ahead, and will see its share of the global economy stripped away by growth in developing nations around the world – and that’s with an amicable trade policy. The idea that trade represents a threat—and policies stemming from that view—will only exacerbate the decline.

It’s likely too early to conclude that trade has been securitized and it’s certainly too soon to see the potential long-term damage caused by Trump’s trade skepticism, but the outlook is bleak. As long as Trump continues to view trading relationships as a zero-sum game and a politically popular target, the United States is likely to become less secure as a result of a weaker network of global alliances.  

Trey Fields is an intern in Defense and Foreign Policy Studies at the Niskanen Center

Photo credit: This image or file is in the public domain because it contains materials that originally came from the United States Marine Corps. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.