Trade counters conflict
By Ken Root
We are about to enter into another trade-restricting, policy-disagreeing and sovereignty-disputing confrontation with Russia. As one who was taught to fear and hate the Soviet Union from my earliest memories, this escalation over Russian territorial expansion raises my heart rate and anxiety. Even though we are approaching a quarter century since the USSR dissolved, the era of a single enemy in the world and mutually assured destruction are etched in my mind.
The President Jimmy Carter grain embargo of 1979, triggered by Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, was a typical western response to a political threat from a defined adversary. Our action against the Russians was followed by their action against us, and we can say today that both sides lost. More importantly, the people of many nations were adversely impacted by market reaction. In the United States, the grain embargo was one of a number of elements that caused good times in agriculture to end. We cannot discount intervention by the Federal Reserve to stop inflation and the resulting meteoric rise in interest rates, but it just takes a small imbalance in the marketplace to set off a major correction.
Dissecting the U.S. reaction to the Soviet entry into Afghanistan in 1979, there was a great deal of information that came to light later that indicated Carter’s advisors and his moralist stance caused the wrong pathway to be taken. They were working with an outdated premise on the severity of a threat and what action to take to counter it. According to former USDA Secretary Bob Bergland, the Soviets came to the U.S. to tell top security officials of their intentions. We rejected their claim that there were Islamic extremists in Afghanistan. We saw it as empire expansion and desire to transplant communism into another nation. Bergland, speaking in 2003, stated the grain embargo didn’t work and the Carter administration should have let the Soviets do us a favor and stop a problem we didn’t know existed until the World Trade Centers were destroyed in 2001.
Let’s turn today’s situation in Ukraine another way. Suppose the U.S. government said we were going to move troops into Mexico because the drug trade, human trafficking and border penetration are out of control. Would the nations of the world condemn our actions? Without a doubt they would but, from our perspective, it would be an internal problem and not a sovereignty issue. We would make the best bad decision for ourselves and others would do likewise. The result would be a decade of chaos in diplomatic and trade relations with the people being the victims more than their governments. The outcome might be a real wall at our southern border or a merging of the two countries but the risk of expanded conflict is too great to make the initial move.
The question is when a nation should stand against another and when to show restraint. The British failed to confront Hitler in the 1930s, and he tried to destroy them soon after. In 1980, we tried to counter the Soviet Afghanistan expedition, failed miserably, and are still in Afghanistan with military forces. There are no easy answers, and our political system does not select a president based on foreign relations finesse nor military skill.
I contend that trade is a pathway to peace. It has its pitfalls but generally the desire to have an economic exchange with another nation benefits both. When wars end, the first bridge built back between the countries is trade. Japan came back from the devastation of WWII to be one of the world’s strongest economic powers because of trade. China, in the post-Mao era, has become an example of how trade can elevate a nation rapidly but does not necessarily change the philosophy of the government. The Soviet Union bought grain from the United States during the worst period of the Cold War while both nations pointed missiles at each other.
If history bears out, based on past embargoes, artificial restraint of trade will be short-lived. The ability of channeling money and goods into a market will be quickly exploited by enterprising companies and nations. The long-term damage will be on trust between the countries that are in dispute. Once a government shows it will disrupt commerce for political principles, it may stand taller in its own eyes but economic erosion begins and often lasts for a generation.
In the words of a Carter advisor who was a party to the anti-Soviet actions of the late 1970s, “We just couldn’t let them go into a country (Afghanistan) and then belly up to the bar (trade) like nothing had changed.” I admire the charisma of that statement but I dislike the economic outcome.
We have to accept Ukraine may lose its sovereignty in the near future. Actions by Europe, Canada and the U.S. are not certain and neither is the outcome of the realignment of power. No one wants to see people oppressed by their own government or an invader, but we have to co-exist in an imperfect world. Trade is a universal language that can tie nations together. Let’s hope we can keep talking and avoid a hostile outcome.
Editor’s note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 39 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com or send mail for him to High Plains Journal.