By James A. Lyons, Jr.
In his State of the Union, President Trump addressed national defense stating, “weakness is the surest path to conflict.” While investing in our military is key to re-establishing our strength, protecting critical industries such as steel is equally essential to keeping our country safe. As President Trump maps out infrastructure and military spending, he shouldn’t forget about confronting the global epidemic of state-subsidized steel industries that are threatening our economic and national security.
The weapons systems and ships our military forces require cannot be forced to rely solely on imported steel from some of America’s greatest adversaries. Regretfully, we are on the cusp of this reality. In early January, the Department of Commerce handed the President a report on the Section 232 investigation into the national security threat posed by imported steel, a material used in our tanks, aircraft, and critical infrastructure. The president now has 90 days to take action.
As the former Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, the largest single military command in the world, I know the critical role U.S. industry plays in ensuring our national security. Also, I know the difference between false alarms and real threats. This is real, and this is urgent. Our ships, planes, and armor should not have to rely on steel coming from as far away as China. Levying tariffs on steel imports via Section 232 ensures that the U.S. steel industry will survive the onslaught of cheap imports and continue making the steel that ensures the safety of our military forces, our national security and our economy.
President Obama sacrificed our strategic interests on so many levels, undercutting our military, apologizing for our leadership, and turning a blind eye to the ravage of iconic American industries. Against all odds, President Trump was elected 45th president of the United States to rectify this damage, and this is a term-defining moment.
Since production peaked in 1973, the forgotten steel industry has tirelessly fought to be heard. Thousands of steelworkers have been laid off since 2015. There are only a few U.S. steel producers that manufacture certain products, such as armored plate, that are critical for military applications.
If a patient is sick, the doctor performs a diagnostic, finds the root cause and recommends a treatment plan. Our patient is the dying U.S. steel industry. The diagnostic has been done, and the root cause is global overcapacity and surging imports. In fact, as recent as September 2017, the OECD stated that, “Excess capacity remains at alarmingly high levels.” 2017 imports were even 15.5 percent higher than in 2016, as countries are rushing to take advantage of our free markets ahead of the Section 232 response. The alarm bells have been ringing, and only now does anyone seem to be listening.
There is only one way this industry will survive, and that’s with quick, decisive action in the form of tariffs. Multilateral negotiations have failed us. According to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the OECD Global Forum on Steel Excess Capacity “has not made meaningful progress yet on the causes of steel excess capacity, and pointing to short-term developments and worn out promises will not cure the fundamental causes of the problem.”
President Trump hasn't made it a secret that he thinks China is a major part of the problem, and they are certainly the largest source of excess capacity, but recent trends reveal additional forces that the president must consider. Over the last four years, more than 85 percent of U.S. steel trade cases have involved countries other than China. This problem is bigger than China, so our response should be bigger than China.
When thinking back on the president’s campaign promises, steel is emblematic of the changes he promised to bring. Promises of renewed industries and a safer America, promises that have been delayed for over a year now. The Trump administration has a chance to shift from the Obama era’s reactive strategies to pro-active policies that change lives.
President Trump, do the right thing. Section 232 is a term-defining opportunity that will change the course of your presidency, our economy and national security.