Abraham Lincoln had a wrong idea, but it lasts to die, customs tariffs. “When we buy abroad – he said – we receive the goods and foreigners receive the money, when we buy in our country, we obtain both goods and money”. Ignorance of an elementary principle of economic theory was excusable in the attorney Lincoln. As president, he did nothing but adhere to the tradition that made the United States, from the late eighteenth century to 1945, “the homeland and the bastion of modern protectionist politics” (Bairoch). Finally, the Lincoln politician, knew that customs duties are primarily instruments for redistributing income within the country that applies them: in his case, in favor of manufacturing north, at the expense of the South exporter of raw materials. The steel, which for the whole of the first half of the twentieth century Washington defended with very high tariffs, today returns to symbolize a return to protectionism that the United States had abandoned after World War II, taking the lead of an international order based on multilateral cooperation. The return to an ancient American tradition makes winds of commercial war blow, while the White House – with layoffs and new appointments – exhibits a disturbing muscular culture.
Hoover was not a hawk of protectionism, but the collapse of Wall Street gave the lobbyists of the many sectors that wanted new duties a political force that the president could not resist. In 1930, Hoover refused to veto the Smoot-Hawley tariff invoked by a manifesto signed by 1,028 economists.
The tariff not only slowed down the US recovery, but gave rise to a disastrous trade war. In 1932, the United Kingdom – almost a century champion of free trade – raised customs duties and reduced European trade by closing in a preferential relationship with the Commonwealth. Germany and Japan perched in their areas of economic influence, with preferential duties, bilateral exchange agreements and strict controls of capital movements. Italy, an export-oriented transforming country, devoid of its own zone of influence, was among the most damaged by the commercial war of the 1930s.
The awareness that the commercial war had been a cause of the catastrophe that consumed the world between 1939 and 1945, was alive in the architects who in 1944 designed the system called Bretton Woods. The same awareness led the United States to stamp its foreign, monetary and commercial policy on a far-sighted vision of “national interest”. The European leaders who signed the Treaty of Rome knew that the popular legitimacy of their governments was also based on the commitment not to repeat the mistakes of the 1930s.
In light of the experience, it is at least risky to say, as Trump did to Cnbc, that “commercial wars are beautiful and easy to win”. Like all wars, even commercial ones, they are easy to start. The conclusions are a gamble that the world can not afford. But how can anyone who is attacked respond? First of all trying, as long as it is still possible, to avoid the escalation of the tones and threats from which it is not possible to go back. With the United States, the European Union must negotiate with an excess of patience and prudence because there is more to it than steel and aluminum: there is a partnership not easy, sometimes tormented, which guaranteed 70 years of peaceful prosperity on both sides of the Atlantic. In this negotiation, the European Union will be much more likely to obtain acceptable conditions, avoiding the risks of the trade war, if it will proceed together and, on the other hand, will be able to strengthen itself by making progress in completing the single market, not only for goods, and the banking union. With its 510 million inhabitants and 20 trillion dollars of gross domestic product (the first in the world), united Europe can rely on such weight as to put it in a position to obtain acceptable conditions in any commercial negotiations, avoiding at any cost the repetition of the thirties. If the United States were then determined to unilaterally repudiate what they constituted in the post-war period, Europe should not follow them on the path of ever-increasing trade barriers. Instead, it should renew its commitment to a reasonably open, multilateral, cooperative international economy, tangibly reaffirming this commitment with the continuation of negotiations with other major economic blocs, starting with China and the 11 remaining members of the Trans Pacific Partnership, supporting the WTO as a natural place for the solution of commercial disputes.
The future Italian government has only one way to go in the face of the threat of a trade war: to strengthen its position in Europe, to have a voice not only in the setting of negotiations with the United States, but especially in the internal negotiations for the strengthening of the single market and completion of the banking union. In a dangerous situation such as that which is emerging, pursuing our national interest – our legitimate Italy first – means to strengthen, not dilute, our commitment to European integration. Today, even more than yesterday, there is no room for the wishful thinking of modest autonomous trade policies. In a sea that could become stormier, our little country is saved only in the European ship. If you want to help to direct the route, you must avoid even languages that give the impression that we are not interested in its estate and the direction it takes. The great difference between today and the tragic Thirties, one that reasonably hopes that they will not be repeated, is given by what then did not exist: the strength of the European Union, and an extensive network of organizations for international cooperation.
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