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In at least one major respect, it should be clear by now that the more things have changed in U.S. trade policy under President Trump, the more they’ve remained the same. Unfortunately, an otherwise fine op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times just revealed that this message hasn’t been received by some prominent supporters of trade policy overhaul.

The article, by Scott N. Paul of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, made all the standard (and in my view, very compelling) economic and domestic political arguments on behalf of imposing tariffs or quotas or both on U.S. imports of steel. (Full disclosure: I’ve worked informally with Paul’s organization for many years, though we’ve differed on tactics from time to time.)

And if Mr. Trump was focused like the proverbial laser beam on aiding important American industries besieged by predatory foreign trade practices, this piece surely would serve an important purpose – influencing fence-sitting Members of Congress and in the chattering classes, and even some opponents.

But Paul’s need to write this article in the first place, and especially to point out (correctly) that Trump trade curbs that were widely expected have now been delayed for months, shows that the main obstacles to these steel moves aren’t on Capitol Hill or in the think tanks and news media. They’re in the Trump administration itself. And the principal reason seems to be one that has shaped the trade policy debate for decades, and that has typically knee-capped reform efforts: national security.

It’s true that as both a candidate and as President, Mr. Trump has promised that the days of “globalist” decisions to prize foreign policy interests and especially smooth relations with America’s allies over domestic needs would end. His Inaugural Address memorably scored “a small group in our nation’s capital” for having

enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry; Subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military…. defended other nation’s borders while refusing to defend our own; And spent trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay. We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength, and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon.”

Nonetheless, according to all reports, top Trump administration national security aides, especially Defense Secretary James Mattis, have erected major roadblocks to turning this rhetoric into reality. The reason? Although China’s government-subsidized steel glut has attracted most of the attention, the proposed tariffs would hit steel shipments from many leading American allies. Their protests appear to bear out the U.S. steel industry’s contention that the Chinese steel that’s been flooding world markets has pressured other steel-producing countries to maximize their own imports – especially to the United States, whose market has remained generally open – and that in some cases, Chinese steel products are being re-exported to the United States as other types of products.

Nor is this the only instance of a Trump trade-foreign policy trade-off. The President has stated he’s postponed imposing other sanctions on China in order to persuade Beijing to crack down harder on North Korea for maintaining a nuclear weapons program.         

Unless American trade policy critics start addressing these considerations, they’re likely to extend a long string of policy defeats. Two counter-arguments are especially promising.

The first is that the general practice of buying and keeping allies’ (or other countries’) good will by turning the other cheek on trade policy is unnecessary. In all of these cases, the country in question faces far greater security threats than does the United States. Therefore, there’s no need to offer any inducements to accept American military protection, or to produce cooperation toward shared goals. And if these countries now believe they’re in the clear, security-wise, and can resist or ignore trade pressure from Washington with no damaging consequences, they’re not going to be very reliable allies or partners going forward.

The second, and overlapping, argument is that the by far best guarantors of America’s security and prosperity are the country’s own domestic capabilities, not alliances or any kinds of relationships with foreign countries. And as suggested above, this goes double for relationships with countries who seem to value their own tariffs and subsidies over military protection from the United States or objectives like eliminating North Korean nuclear weapons.

In other words, President Trump’s commitment to America First trade policies has been far from absolute. If trade policy critics want him to govern more along the lines of Candidate Trump, they’ll need to raise – and broaden – their game.