Waving the flag as he heads into the election season, President Biden is opposing the takeover of US Steel, a once major steelmaker headquartered in Pittsburgh, by a larger and stronger Japanese company, Nippon Steel. “I told our steelworkers that I stand with them, and I meant it,” Biden said in a statement. “US Steel has been an iconic American steel company for more than a century, and it is critical that it remains a domestically owned and operated American steel company.”

No doubt, Mr. Biden hopes to counter Donald Trump’s nativist appeal, especially in a state with a long history of anti-free trade sentiment. (Abraham Lincoln won Pennsylvania 164 years ago on the pro-tariff stance of the Republican Party.)

But blocking the purchase would be destructive to U.S. interests abroad and at home. First, US Steel is far from the icon Biden says it is. Within the industry, it ranks third in the United States and 27th in the world. Once America’s third-largest company, today it ranks 186th on Fortune’s list.

Moreover, Nippon Steel’s $14.1 billion non-hostile deal is clearly in the interests of America and workers. The Japanese company, which already produces steel in the United States, Latin America and throughout Asia, won boardroom sales by offering about twice as much as a domestic rival, Cleveland-Cliffs. Nippon has pledged to inject the necessary capital and technology to make the century-old former icon more competitive. It also promises that US Steel will continue to produce its steel in the United States and maintain its headquarters in Pittsburgh.

But Cleveland-Cliffs has been lobbying hard for the Biden administration, including the United Steelworkers union, to block the deal. Yesterday, the union rewarded Mr. Biden by backing him for re-election.

Lawmakers in both parties have jumped on the populist bandwagon. Sen. Bob Casey, who is running for re-election in Pennsylvania, said he would “work hard against any deal that leaves our steelworkers behind.” Never mind that under the red, white and blue American occupation, US Steel’s workforce plummeted from 340,000 during World War II to about 22,000 today.

What hurts is to see Mr. Biden imitating Mr. Trump, who has vowed, if elected for a second term, to block the Nippon takeover “immediately.” Mr. Biden’s statement of opposition was slightly weaker; he denounced the deal without explicitly promising to end it. But instead of confronting the defeated former president in a case where Mr. Trump was substantively wrong, Mr. Biden caved to Mr. Trump’s followers.

This reflects Mr. Biden’s overall trade approach, which has been fairly characterized as Trump-lite. He suspended some of Trump’s tariffs but left others unchanged. He filled his signature Inflation Reduction Act with numerous “Buy American” requirements that were insulting to American allies. The best that can be said about Mr. Biden on this front is that his protectionism is inconsistent, while Mr. Trump’s is a coherent part of his toxic America First ideology.

Mr. Trump’s worldview sees America as a fortress. Mr. Biden’s does not. Mr. Biden recognizes that what happens beyond America’s borders, such as in Ukraine and Gaza, is of critical importance to the United States. In this case, his economic nationalism does not match the respect he claims to show for American allies.

The great lesson of the 1930s and 1940s was that trade was more important than just its economics: it was vital to international security. The international economic crisis and World War II were successive events in an interconnected nightmare, first trade barriers and currency wars, then worsening depression, aggressive nationalism and shooting wars.

It did not help to bankrupt rival nations, as the Allies, led by France, tried with Germany after World War I. Germany did not respond well. There was no point in imposing protective tariffs, because other countries would certainly retaliate – but the US Congress did so anyway, enacting the Smoot-Hawley tariff in 1930 (after protests from more than a thousand economists), which the Great Depression worsened.

After the Second World War, the victors – led by the United States – assumed, based on bitter experiences, that the catastrophe of the war had its roots in the economic nationalism that preceded it.

Allied efforts to build a new international order include not only political security organizations such as the United Nations and military alliances such as NATO, but also economic partnerships such as the World Bank, the IMF and Bretton Woods.

The postwar goal was not to make our friends, or even our rivals, suffer. It was to see them bloom. Preventing international depression was as important as preventing war. In contemporary (Trumpian) terms, making Mexico “pay” would simply have been self-defeating. The worse Mexico does, the more migrants cross our border.

Economists today are as convinced as they were in 1930 that trade in general makes all countries richer, even as affected countries deserve aid and retraining in specific sectors. In recent decades, trade has accomplished a miracle: millions of people in developing countries have been lifted out of poverty. Retreating from internationalism means retreating into a blinkered world of shrinking economic pies, in which each principality protects what it has rather than contributing to growth. Closed markets promote narrow thinking and nativist, biased societies. We have seen the political benefits of trade in our own lives. American military strength helped win the Cold War, but so did the example of American capitalism, which other people wanted to join. More than rockets, they wanted McDonald’s.

The White House has suggested that the acquisition of US Steel by Nippon, the world’s fourth-largest steelmaker, will be subject to a national security review by a group with White House and Cabinet-level participation known as the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States. . The idea that foreign ownership of a U.S. steel mill poses a national security risk is ridiculous: There is no shortage of steel and Japan is a friend, not an enemy.

A negative decision would curb future investment in the United States and damage America’s partner in the Pacific, a crucial relationship as tensions with China rise. For the Japanese, it would revive memories of past racism. (According to The Wall Street Journal, Lourenco Goncalves, the CEO of Cleveland-Cliffs, was heard on a private call in which investors appeared to mock the accents of Nippon executives.) This is no way to treat an ally.

Mr. Trump is immune to such arguments. Mr. Biden should know better.

Roger Lowenstein is a journalist and author of ‘Ways and Means: Lincoln and His Cabinet and the Financing of the Civil War.’

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