Trump's Soft Targets

The world moved one step closer toward a trade war last week, as the US implemented long-postponed tariffs against its allies (Mexico, Canada, and the EU). Why did the Trump administration finally decide to lower the hammer on Washington’s friends?


Simple, says my fellow Signalista Gabe Lipton. They’re easy targets.

In Mexico, outgoing incumbent President Pena Nieto faces an election next month in which his business-friendly party, the PRI, will likely experience its most crushing loss in decades. That means he’s under huge pressure to strike a NAFTA deal with Washington that safeguards Mexico’s long-term business interests before the election of leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who could blow up the NAFTA talks entirely. With Pena Nieto over a barrel, Trump’s metals tariffs are designed to force Mexico to give away the store before Lopez Obrador has a chance to set up shop. Will it work?

For Canada’s Justin Trudeau, Trump’s tariffs pose a different political problem — getting baited into a trade war could hurt politically important industrial bases in Ontario and Quebec which rely on the US market, but responding too softly could hurt him with an electorate that deeply dislikes the US president. Trump knows Trudeau has a fine line to walk, and sees an opportunity to knock him off it, particularly since the heartthrob prime minister could suffer a political blow if Doug Ford (a populist businessman often compared to Trump), wins an election to run Ontario this week.

As for the EU, Trump knows full well that crafting a forceful and unified response to the US requires forging consensus among 28 countries, who are struggling to find unity on most things these days. What’s more, Europe’s abiding commitments to WTO rules (Quaint! Sad!) incline it to take a more deliberative and litigious approach to trade disputes that can get left in the dust by Trump’s norm-breaking executive actions. That said, if Trump follows through with proposed tariffs on European autos — which dwarf steel and aluminum as exports to the US — could the Europeans take a toothier approach?

The bottom line: For President Trump, going after US allies is way to ring up quick and dirty wins on an issue — trade — that’s popular with his base. Of course, that still leaves the challenge of facing down China, a competitor that enjoys greater economic heft, and far fewer political or economic constraints, than any of America’s soft target friends.

Technology has played a big role in accelerating globalization. While it's our business to advance technology, we also believe that technology should respect and even help protect the world's timeless values. That conviction has led us to announce a new and fourth pillar to Microsoft's AI for Good portfolio – our $125 million, five-year commitment to use artificial intelligence to tackle some of society's biggest challenges. This new pillar will focus on AI for Cultural Heritage. Read more at Microsoft On The Issues.

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This Saturday, July 20, will mark the 50-year anniversary of the day a human being first stepped onto another world. A moment born out of Cold War political pressures, it's easy to forget a half century later how much bitter controversy the project provoked at home and the intensity of the worldwide fanfare that followed its success.

The moon mission's primary purpose was to defeat the Soviet Union. By the time John Kennedy became president in 1961, the Soviet Union had advanced far ahead of the United States in the race for achievement in space. In October 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, the world's first satellite. A month later, a dog named Laika became the first living creature to travel beyond Earth's atmosphere. In April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth, the first human to do so.

In early May, Alan Shepard became the first American in space, spurring Kennedy to announce a far more ambitious plan. On May 25, Kennedy famously pledged that by the end of the decade Americans would go to the moon and return safely to the Earth.

Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, but new President Lyndon Johnson quickly signaled his intention to see the promise kept. The Soviets held their space lead through 1965, by landing an unmanned craft on the Moon.

The moon mission stoked controversy in the United States. A review of polls reveals that only in 1969 did a majority of Americans support the project. Many people argued that the billions spent on a moonshot should go toward the war in Vietnam or to fight poverty in America's inner cities. "No hot water, no toilets, no lights. But Whitey's on the moon," sang musician and activist Gil Scott Heron. It didn't help when a fire during the Apollo 1 mission killed three astronauts and destroyed their space module.

But when Neil Armstrong became the first person to step onto the moon on July 20, 1969, the event took on a life of its own. It was a decade framed by two images of respected TV anchorman Walter Cronkite—shaken to the core on air by the 1963 murder of President Kennedy and then speechless with awe as Americans bounded across the surface of the moon.

A decade that included confrontation with the Soviets in Cuba, the assassinations of John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy, a failing war in Vietnam, race riots in American cities, and violent chaos at the 1968 Democratic Party convention ended with an accomplishment a quarter million miles away, that was watched live by 94 percent of Americans who owned a TV.

Americans weren't the only ones watching. About 650 million people around the world watched the moon landing live on TV, making the event the first truly global televised event. Nine weeks later, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins began a world tour.

Concerns that planting an American flag on the moon's surface would seem an act of obnoxious nationalism faded as the three men were greeted by overflow crowds in 27 cities in 24 countries over 39 days. An estimated one million people greeted them in Dhaka (then Pakistan) and some 1.5 million turned out in Mumbai (then Bombay).

Fifty years later, moon missions are still a mark of national prestige. Russia, China, India, the EU, Japan, and Israel have all sent probes to orbit the Moon or landed vehicles on its surface. But none of them matches that first "giant leap for mankind."

Next up: Mars? For thoughts on the next space race, click here.

Bonus fact: An iPhone has more than 100,000 times the processing power of the computer that landed Apollo 11 on the moon.