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Adam Tooze is a British economic historian. He teaches at Columbia University in New York following previous stops at Yale and Cambridge. His book "Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World" was published in 2018.

ZEIT ONLINE: Mr. Tooze, are we on the brink of a global trade war?

Adam Tooze: It’s a kind of cold trade war, but it didn’t start with the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president. It’s been around for several years.  The world has to find a way to address the great global imbalances – for example between the European Union and the United States. Furthermore, we have to decide how to integrate the Chinese colossus and its unprecedented economic momentum into the global economic system. Tensions between Chinese state capitalism and Western democratic capitalism are to be expected.

ZEIT ONLINE: Is protectionism the right path in this kind of difficult situation?

Tooze: No, of course not. Donald Trump is a reckless actor in an already fraught system. The world has rarely experienced the kind of absurd policies that are currently coming out of the White House. Similar sorts of things have come from the U.S. Congress in the past, but such an approach to politics never has never before come from a White House administration.

ZEIT ONLINE: The departure of Gary Cohn and Rex Tillerson means the loss of two people in the U.S. government who stood for a more moderate approach. Who are the ideologues in the background pushing Trump’s policies?

Tooze: There are entire groups of different actors – for example, the brothers David and Charles Koch and their energy company. They wanted the U.S. to pull out of the international climate agreement and they got it. But the Koch brothers didn’t expect the protectionism that Trump is now pursuing. One proponent of this policy is the lesser-known U.S. trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, a smart attorney who already in the 1980s led tough trade talks with the Japanese for the Reagan administration. Apart from Lighthizer, there’s also Peter Navarro. He regards China as something of an archenemy. Both of them see world trade less as a system of different rules and more as a battlefield upon which economic power is measured.

Trump wants to fulfill an historic mission. His narrative is simple: Since the 1970s the American economy has been overwhelmed by globalization.
Adam Tooze

ZEIT ONLINE: The rhetoric about unfair trade is supposed to feed the fear of Chinese supremacy?

Tooze: Yes. But China’s development is also something completely new and historic in terms of its dimension and speed. Global steel capacity alone has doubled over the past 15 years. Aluminum production has almost tripled over the course of a decade. Naturally that has an impact on the global distribution of labor, on jobs in the United States and the rest of the world. But sealing yourself off and starting what amounts to a cold war won’t solve the problem.

ZEIT ONLINE: Will the appointment of Lawrence Kudlow as Trump’s new top economic advisor change anything? He is regarded as a proponent of free trade.

Tooze: One could almost conclude that Trump wants to create a balance between globalists and nationalists among his advisors. Above all, though, he wants to be surrounded by sycophants. Kudlow is one, and he’s also a lightweight.

ZEIT ONLINE: What motivates Trump – aside from what his advisors are telling him?

Tooze: He wants to fulfill an historic mission. His narrative is simple: Since the 1970s the American economy has been overwhelmed by globalization. And the previous governments in Washington have done nothing to defend it. He implies that his predecessors were stupid. He says, for example, that they were terrible at negotiating free trade agreements. That’s why the country now needs a government that will finally take action.