First, instead of using tariffs as a tool to extract specific economic concessions, they are being continuously deployed to create a climate of instability with America’s trading partners. The objective of the new Mexican tariffs—fewer migrants crossing the Rio Grande—has nothing to do with trade. And they breach the spirit of USMCA, a free-trade deal signed by the White House only six months ago, which will replace NAFTA (Congress has yet to ratify it). Alongside these big fights is a constant barrage of petty activity. Officials have skirmished over foreign washing machines and Canadian softwood lumber imports.
Second, the scope of activity has been extended beyond physical goods by weaponising America’s network. Outright enemies such as Iran and Venezuela face tighter sanctions—last year 1,500 people, firms and vessels were added to the list, a record figure. The rest of the world faces a new regime for tech and finance. An executive order prohibits transactions in semiconductors and software made by foreign adversaries, and a law passed last year known as firrmapolices foreign investment into Silicon Valley. If a firm is blacklisted, banks usually refuse to deal with it, cutting it off from the dollar payments system. That is crippling—as two firms, ZTE and Rusal, discovered, briefly, last year.