Bernie Jumps on the Trump Train on Trade War with China, Because OF COURSE He Does

And there it is.

In many ways, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are birds of a feather. Both are old-guard politicians overly concerned with the perceived loss of white economic entitlement who view the emerging multilateral global order as a threat to that white entitlement rather than as an opportunity for American leadership and global growth. Both believe in placating angry, insecure white men. Both see free trade as an affront to white insecurity. The only difference between Trump and Sanders on this issue, if there is a slight one, is that Trump is brazen about throwing around the weight of American economic power to bring others to heel.

Or at least, it was the one slight difference. That got wiped out on Sunday.

On CNN’s State of the Union, Bernie Sanders came clean. Like Trump, he said “of course” he would use tariffs as a “tool” in negotiating with China. Because like Trump, Bernie Sanders apparently believes that China could be subdued by tariffs after the same exact thing plunges the global economy into a recession and the majority of the world holds the United States responsible for it.

Donald Trump’s tariffs are stupid. So is Bernie’s. Trump’s tariffs have no purpose other than to send that feeling up white America’s legs that makes them feel big and powerful. Neither does Bernie’s.

But there’s a reason why this is happening. The reason - in addition to knee-jerk white entitlement protectionism - is that neither Bernie Sanders nor Donald Trump (nor ideologues of all stripes) understands how to wield and enhance American economic power. Both appear to believe that the way to fulfill the trading needs of the United States is browbeating individual countries into submission when the truth is that only broad, multilateral, standard-setting free trade deals that globalize the rights of workers and universalize the obligation to protect the environment protect against the countervailing trade philosophy that individual state and corporate interests alone are to paramount.

This is not empty speculation. Look at China’s aggressive moves on global trade since the exit of the United States from the Transpacific Partnership.

Although hit with a series of problems, China’s key international infrastructure plan Belt and Road Initiative, which was launched in 2013 in response to the Obama administration’s focus on trade with Asia and put on the map by Chinese President Xi Jinping with much fanfare in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s pullout from the Transpacific Partnership in 2017, has already spent over a half a trillion dollars to fund infrastructure projects from Asia to Europe and Africa. But when cash strapped countries have had trouble paying their debt to China, the Chinese have moved aggressively to take over ports and other key assets.

Another key initiative that got new life among Asian countries just as the US left the TPP, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, is also receiving renewed push and support from China, as it looks to multilateral agreements it can dominate to decouple itself from its economic dependence on American consumers. The Chinese Commerce Ministry is now saying a draft deal on the RCEP may be announced before the year ends. Although negotiations on the RCEP were originally launched in 2012, it languished as the Obama administration sought to set a path forward on transpacific trade with Asian partners, cutting out China. Guess what is not even being mentioned in RCEP negotiations, unlike the TPP? Labor rights and environmental standards.

China isn’t just trying to rewrite the rules on global trade. It is trying to rewrite the playbook on infrastructure and strategic dominance, and thanks to the abject abdication of constructive engagement by the United States, it is succeeding.

President Obama warned us for eight years, but America seems to be deaf on this issue. The global economy is going to get more free trade, not less, and the United States picking whiny trade wars with China and the like isn’t going to fix it. China will not be contained by American tariffs. It will be bruised - bruising the US economy right alongside - but it will not be contained.

The only way China will be contained is the establishment of a global trading order that, along with freedom of movement of goods and services, respects universal human rights, workers' rights, and environmental protection. The only way China will be contained is a global trade and financial order that protects against modern-day colonialism through debt and instead promotes good government, anti-corruption measures, and investment. You know, like the Transpacific Partnership.

The way to contain China is to present a better alternative. It is not to act like a petulant bully that focuses solely on short-term financial foot-stomping, which is what tariffs are.

Tariffs don’t work. Tariffs are a tax on the American consumer, and in a world with interdependencies, a detriment to American farmers and workers. Tariffs are punitive measures, not a trade policy. While tariffs can be used to punish bad actors, provided we are prepared to bear the cost, they cannot be part of any effective trade policy.

This basic truth isn’t going to disappear just because Bernie Sanders is joining the Trump train of denialism.

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