Trump’s ‘Crazy Ivan’ Trade Strategy

The following commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of AgWeb or Farm Journal. The opinions expressed below are the author's own.

If you’ve seen the Cold War classic film The Hunt for Red October, you may remember the ‘Crazy Ivan.’ A U.S. submarine silently stalks a Soviet sub by gliding in its wake. Then the Russian sub commander orders his crew to suddenly stop and turn,  a maneuver designed to out anyone hiding in their blind spot. The American crew is forced to cut their engine and glide helplessly because they don’t know which way their prey will turn. Because of that unpredictability, the maneuver is termed a ‘Crazy Ivan.’

President Donald Trump is working his own ‘Crazy Ivan’ in the trade arena. As he’s made abundantly clear, he wants to throw those across the negotiating table off their game, making them unsure of the next turn he will take. Will he truly back out of NAFTA? It certainly seems possible.

That sense of unpredictability has seemingly served him well in the private sector, but how do unpredictable turns work in a much more public arena?

Donald Trump is no longer negotiating with a single player across a table. His moves, his negotiating tactics are read like tea leaves across the globe. They not only impact future trade deals, they affect the here and now of decisions made by our most important trading partners.

The success of NAFTA for U.S. agriculture has been built on the notion that the United States has been a reliable trading partner for Mexico and Canada. They didn’t need to look elsewhere for ag staples because they knew they could count on us for quality at prices that are competitive on the world market. That reliability has been shaken, and those valued trading partners are now looking to other markets and building out infrastructure to more readily import from other parts of the globe.

Last August, Clinton Griffiths of AgDay traveled to Mexico with the U.S. Grains Council and saw first-hand the infrastructure investment being made to import grain via sea ports rather than the land bridge with the U.S. One of the commercial grain handlers, Arturo Garcia of Gromosa told Griffiths he feels like he’s being pushed to find new suppliers. Meanwhile, U.S. soybean growers are nervous that they will be the first casualty in a trade war with China sparked by the President’s tariffs on steel.

President Trump has promised a new NAFTA that is better for all of the United States. Many in farm country urged caution that successes of agriculture trade not be lost to benefit manufacturing. Each day that passes and each tariff that is raised validates those fears further. Even worse, an all-out trade war would be quite painful for both sides of the negotiating table.

That’s the thing about the ‘Crazy Ivan,’ while the unpredictability can help one lure an opponent out of hiding, it can just as easily cause both ships to collide and sink.