INDIANAPOLIS — President Donald Trump's administration has yet to show it has a strategic foreign trade policy, notably in light of the recent tariff-infused trade war with China, former U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar said Thursday.
"I don't think they do," Lugar, an Indiana Republican, said. "I think there have been reactions to various countries or events. There is maybe a sense, perhaps deriving from his America first idea, that if somebody crosses him, sock it to them. But nevertheless, in terms of the sophistication we're talking about today, it does not seem to part of the picture."
The president is conducting a "piece-by-piece" basis for foreign policy, Lugar said.
Lugar made his remarks following a "Tariffs Hurt the Heartland" town hall meeting, part of a nationwide Americans for Free Trade campaign initiated by farm and business groups. The nine-member panel included Lugar, an Indiana farmer, a Ball State University economist, Vera Bradley’s vice president of Global Production and the executive director of Farmers for Free Trade. All saw the tariffs as a threat to the Indiana and U.S. economy.
Last month, Trump said he would impose a 10 percent tariff on $200 billion in Chinese goods and raise that to 25 percent by the start of 2019. Beijing answered by leveling tariffs on $50 billion of U.S. products.
At the announcement imposing tariffs, Trump warned, "If China takes retaliatory action against our farmers or other industries, we will immediately pursue phase three, which is tariffs on approximately $267 billion of additional imports."
Thursday, panelists maintained that the U.S. and Indiana markets are competitive with China but want the removal of tariffs to keep an equal advantage.
"It's not necessarily an argument of improving those competitive advantages. It's not getting in the way of them. And that's what the tariff strategy has done. It's gotten in the way of those markets that have been built over the years," said Brent Bible, co-owner of Stillwater Farms, which has about 5,000 acres primarily of corn and soybeans.
Indiana soybean farmers have noted a 10 percent to 15 percent drop in prices for their product. With a projected price drop, Bible said it would be difficult for Indiana farmers to show a profit.
Among impacts on Indiana's workforce due to tariffs, panelists and organizers cited:
• Vera Bradley, the handbag and luggage designer in Fort Wayne, has reduced its reliance on Chinese goods by 85 percent. Nearly 87 percent of its imported parts face tariffs.
• Dana Huber, owner of the seven-generation Huber Winery, worries about the impact of importing wine bottle corks from Portugal and glass from Mexico.
• In southern Indiana, Jane Hardy, the chief executive of Brinly-Hardy in Jeffersonville, which makes lawn-care equipment, has laid off 75 employees this summer because of the trade war. Hardy has said that if she increases her prices, foreign competitors will undercut her. Instead, she cut almost 40 percent of her 200-person mostly blue-collar workforce.
Foreign policy should also address the potential for cybersecurity attacks by other countries, said Lugar, former chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"That is going to require the president, whoever that may be, to surround himself or herself with people who have great knowledge about foreign policy who are prepared really to work diligently on a very intellectual, complicated set of issues," Lugar said. "Until it does, I'm afraid we're going to be faced with one conflict after another in various ways."