WASHINGTON — Russia has requested talks with the United States on President Donald Trumps decision to impose new duties on steel and aluminum, the first step in formally challenging the action at the World Trade Organization.
Collectively, they put the administration on a potential collision course with the rules-based world trading system forged by the United States and its allies, but which Trump believes is now biased against Washington.
Moscows move comes as the Trump administration is mulling additional tariffs on auto imports in the name of national security, and as Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin are scheduled to meet later this month.
Russia claims the U.S. duties of 25 percent and 10 percent on imports of steel and aluminum products, respectively, are inconsistent with provisions of the WTOs General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade 1994 and the Agreement on Safeguards.
The Trump administration imposed the duties under Section 232 of the 1962 Trade Expansion Act, which allows a president to restrict imports to protect national security. It also argues its actions are consistent with a 1982 legal decision on the use of Article XXI of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which provides countries the right to restrict trade to protect national security.
In that decision, the European Union, Canada and Australia restricted imports from Argentina for national security reasons because of the Falklands War. At the time, the U.S. sided with the three governments, asserting that the provision left it up to a nation to define its national security interests and that other trading partners “had no power to question that judgment.”
However, rather than accept the U.S. national security rationale for the steel and aluminum duties, other WTO members are treating the restrictions as emergency “safeguard” restrictions. Such restrictions are allowed under WTO rules but must meet certain criteria to pass muster. Steel safeguard restrictions imposed by former President George W. Bush in 2002 were struck down by the WTO.
The EU, Canada, Mexico, China and others have also retaliated against the U.S. steel and aluminum duties, arguing they are entitled to take such steps because the United States did not compensate them for imposing safeguard restrictions.
Last week, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer accused WTO members who have retaliated against the United States of distorting the rules to suit their purposes.
“President Trump has taken actions on trade in steel and aluminum to protect our national security interests. These actions are wholly legitimate and fully justified, both as a matter of U.S. law and WTO rules. By contrast, the European Union has concocted a groundless legal theory to justify immediate tariffs on U.S. exports. Other WTO members, including China, have adopted a similar approach,” Lighthizer said in a statement.
Still, Lighthizers argument struck many as strained since the Trump administration is accused of abusing the Section 232 statute to find a national security threat from steel and aluminum imports.
“This is doublespeak right out of 1984,” Bill Reinsch, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in a new column. “We took the first step and hit them with tariffs of questionable legality, and now its their fault for responding in kind — also with questionable legality? Our contempt for the system encourages others contempt for the system. This would be funny if there werent so many people that are going to lose their jobs as a result of the presidents action.”