Supply Chains Are Our Most Critical Infrastructure

President Joe Biden made clear in his Joint Address to Congress that rebuilding U.S. infrastructure and protecting national security will remain at the top of his agenda. His $2.3 trillion proposal goes far beyond America’s core needs, but while Democrats and Republicans may respectfully disagree on the plan, a shared lesson from the pandemic is that essential U.S. supply chains constitute critical infrastructure. That is a point we can all agree on.

During my time serving as national security advisor for former President Donald Trump, it became clear that strengthening U.S. supply chains and protecting our national security go hand in hand. Bringing our supply chains and manufacturing plants home provides stability in times of crisis and means good jobs for American workers today — many of whom were forgotten when industries rushed to low-wage countries over the past three decades.

Onshoring our supply chains cannot be done with infrastructure funds alone. We must also pursue trade policies that put millions of U.S. workers first. The Trump administration introduced trade solutions that protected our security as well as the jobs of tens of thousands of manufacturing workers across America’s heartland.

The Covid-19 pandemic exposed how dependent the U.S. has become on foreign suppliers for our most essential materials and products. For example, the critical difference between the U.S. and Canada in the speed of the vaccine rollout was that the U.S. was able to manufacture its own vaccines domestically, while our neighbor to the North depended on foreign imports. Whether it's pharmaceuticals, medical devices, silicon chips or critical raw materials like aluminum and steel, the U.S. must control production of its essential materials and products.

I am a life-long Republican and free trader, so I understand why some in our party opposed the decisive action on trade policy taken by Trump and former U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer. As a general principal, their position is correct: free trade ultimately benefits U.S. consumers. The problem is that while the U.S. engaged in free trade for decades, the rest of the world did not. Consequently, we lost many of our critical supply chains and much of our industrial base, imperiling U.S. national security.

The Trump administration’s Section 232 program, for example, imposed a 10% tariff on aluminum imports and a 25% tariff on steel imports. The U.S. aluminum industry exemplifies what must be protected in our defense industrial base. Both standard-grade and high-purity primary aluminum are used extensively in building warfighting platforms.

Unfortunately, the only other major sources for commercial quantities of high-purity aluminum are our great-power competitors Russia and China, and Middle Eastern nations whose exports are subject to the vagaries of that fraught region. Because aluminum is a globally traded commodity, overcapacity is rapidly felt throughout the global market. Importing excess aluminum subsidized by foreign governments harms U.S. producers whether those imports come from our adversaries or our friends. Thus, the Section 232 program imposed a global solution to a global problem.

The tariffs helped save critical industries that we require to build everything from body armor to ships to tanks to aircraft. Of course, aluminum also has many non-defense applications, from critical infrastructure to advanced medical equipment. It's a key material for lighter-weight automobiles and for alternative energy equipment, both of which are essential to U.S. efforts to reduce carbon emissions. 

The Section 232 program contributed to a 385,000 ton increase in U.S. aluminum production from 2017 to 2019, helping turn around a vital industry within our borders. This increased production, in turn, decreased our dependence on global competitors and unstable regions for essential raw materials. To be clear, neither the domestic aluminum nor steel industries will produce at the levels we need without the protection provided by the Section 232 program.

As the 2022 midterm elections approach, it will be good politics for candidates of both parties to support the onshoring of critical American supply chains. For Republican candidates, whose base voters are increasingly drawn from the hardworking men and women employed in our industrial base — who are laser-focused on national security — the issue is essential. 

Voters will be watching to ensure that their representatives use infrastructure funds for actual manufacturing projects, and that they embrace common-sense trade policies that protect U.S. national security while putting American workers first.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Robert C. O’Brien served as national security adviser to President Donald Trump. He is the co-chairman of the Nixon Foundation’s Seminar on Conservative Realism and National Security.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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