By Caleb Mills
In late December of 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in a widely criticized bid to protect its own national interests in the small, mountainous, impoverished country. At the time, the United States had no plausible way to retaliate, with the exception of economic sanctions. But President Jimmy Carter took further action than simple economic restrictions. He outright banned US sales of wheat to the Russians and sought its demise through what could only be described as Carter pursuing a strategy of ‘mutually-assured’ economic turmoil, a move which perhaps cost him re-election the next year.
As of early August 2019, the relationship between the United States and China is deteriorating by the day. President Donald Trump continuously attacks the Sino-American trade infrastructure and has even gone so far as to classify Xi Jinping’s government as a currency manipulator. Trump campaigned in 2016 on being tough against the Chinese where other presidents had not, and this included enacting tariffs. While Trump hasn’t outright embargoed Beijing, it seems his combative style of diplomacy is pushing us toward perhaps a similar situation. Regardless of circumstance, the strategy being employed is the same, and it’s not a wise one.
An important factor to remember is that Jimmy Carter’s 1979 embargo was actually widely favored in its infancy. Carter had the support of prominent backers such as the Farm Bureau, who were excited about the idea of selling more wheat to Americans. The Carter administration did a much better job of rallying the public to its side in the beginning of the conflict than Trump has. However, the utilization of so-called US ‘food power’ only revealed how ineffective it truly was. The Soviet Union survived unscathed, while American farmers began to see a decline in their industry from which they never recovered.
To be clear, economic repercussions do work, just not ones that will affect you as badly as the other guy. Trump’s haphazard style of leadership and lack of attention to detail could end up meaning he might do to manufacturing what Carter did to farming. The purpose of any economic standoff with a country like China should be to obtain a better position with which to negotiate a better compromise, not just to pull the trigger.
The similarities between these two drastically different politicians doesn’t just end with policy: there are electoral considerations that need to be understood. Both Carter and Trump won hotly contested elections (although unlike Carter, Trump didn’t win the popular vote) partially by pandering to midwestern and rural voters. Both men pulled off unexpected wins in places like Ohio by making the working-class demographic feel heard, something their opponents couldn’t do.
President Trump is already suffering from the spat with China, and it’s not even in full swing yet. An astonishing 40% of US farmers feel the president’s trade policy is destroying their industry, according to Farm Futures. In a close, heavily contested election like 2020, that 40% could end up being President Trump’s downfall.
Carter’s failed embargo was replaced, as was he in 1981. He lost to a charismatic governor from a western state who took advantage of Carter’s failure to keep people like, ‘Joe the plumber’ on his side. It doesn’t take much to throw a president’s message back in his face if he hasn’t lived up to it – an obstacle Trump will have to find a way around if he doesn’t find a compromise with the Chinese.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect Geopoliticalmonitor.com or any institutions with which the author is associated.