When investigators found out ZTE was violating sanctions against North Korea and Iran, and lied about it, the enforcement options were pretty straight-forward: these guys were in big trouble, never to buy their much-needed supplies from American companies again, and that was just to start. Even better for American diplomats trying to negotiate for better corporate behavior in China, this was a state-owned company of China's, and their misbehavior might help us hammer home how America is truly on the right side in our desire to make sure everybody plays by fair rules.
Of course, that's not exactly what happened.
No, before Trump even got to the negotiating table, he made sure ZTE was doing just fine because "too many jobs in China [were] lost."
It's not normal to swap sanctions enforcement for unrelated agricultural trade deals.
I cannot overstate how much misbehavior got wiped away in that moment, and how much leverage over China we lost, with that one tweet. If you wanted to pressure China into stopping IP seizures from American companies working in China, you might have cried at your desk that day. Heck, if you dislike the horrors of North Korea and think sanctions are the only tool keeping them from the wealth they need to export their disgusting totalitarianism to their neighbors in the South, you wouldn't be happy about the sanctions not being enforced. Good people around the world took a gut punch, and it didn't get nearly enough news coverage.
All of this, to undo a retaliation against the knuckle-headed aluminum and steel tariffs.
This is why the trade war is bad. It doesn't just make us all poorer. It costs us immensely, in all the small things we give up just to negotiate a truce. There are no winners.
I spoke yesterday about the trade war, and how maybe negotiations have stalled on purpose. If you were getting these kinds of deals, you'd welcome a trade war. Two or three more ZTEs and China has everything it wants, while America sacrifices principles, world stability, every single goal it might have.
It's also worth noting Trump has gone through a few chief negotiators in this process. I don't think it helps them, when he shoots off tweets like that.
It's been about a year since that happened, and I think we all need to take a moment to remember. How did we get here, and what are the ways forward? What should we ask of whoever is president next? Is it even possible to train Trump to handle this negotiation professionally, and to put his short-term and frequently personal interests to the side to handle some of the biggest issues in the world? And why hasn't he done that already?