Trump’s Steel Tariffs Have Hit Smaller and Poorer Countries the Hardest



Chad P. Bown, Euijin Jung and Eva (Yiwen) Zhang | Peterson Institute for International Economics

President Donald Trump’s steel tariffs hit almost all US trading partners large and small with the same penalty: a 25 percent duty on imported steel. The main victims included China, Canada, Mexico, and the European Union—all of which then retaliated as part of Trump’s trade war. But a little-noticed and little-appreciated aspect of these particular tariffs is that they also hurt smaller and poorer steel-producing countries—and inflicted pain on them disproportionately.

The disparity of impact highlights two disturbing developments. First, Trump’s rationale for acting against major trading partners like China has been to protect US national security. But importing steel from smaller producers in Bangladesh, Guatemala, or Peru could not possibly be considered a national security threat. Thus, Trump is hitting these more vulnerable countries with no stated policy goal.

Second, Trump’s actions once again violate norms that the United States helped establish at the World Trade Organization. WTO members had explicitly committed themselves to shield vulnerable, innocent bystanders from the fallout of protectionist actions. Trump’s tariffs on the poor are yet another such commitment discarded by his version of America First—this one receiving little fanfare because of the identity of the affected countries.

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