The phrase worries economists and government officials. Trade wars can raise prices. They can reduce the number of jobs. And they can protect inefficient industries and slow economic progress.
Yet the talk of a possible trade war involving the US, Europe, and Japan is growing.
This week, US officials are discussing possible actions to correct a severe imbalance in US-Japan trade. The recession and growing unemployment, especially in the America's auto-building Midwest, make the issue even more urgent.
Officials are playing down the crisis. US trade administrator William Brock concedes officials have discussed ''a number of options (against the Japanese).'' But he adds:
''I would not put any great weight on barriers on their products. It would be very self defeating. Our goal is to open their markets -- not close ours.''
Yet there is known to be great disappointment in Washington at recent trade concessions offered by Japan. The concessions, it is felt, fell far short of what is needed to open Japanese markets to US products.
Examples of increasing tensions between the US and its Japanese and European trading partners include:
* The chairman of Ford Motor Company Feb. 10 complained about Japan's 22 percent share of the US new car market, despite recent curbs on imports.
* A steel salesman for the Japanese-based Mitsui & Co. (USA) was indicted Feb. 9 as part of a federal investigation into alleged violations of American import laws.
* Ending two days of talks Feb. 9, European and American trade officials say rising unemployment on both sides of the Atlantic is forcing diplomats to work harder to avoid an ''insane'' trade war. President Reagan is scheduled to attend an top level economic summit at Versailles in France, in June with West European officials.
Last year, the Japanese enjoyed an $18 billion trade surplus with the US and an $11 billion surplus with Western Europe. US officials complain that in large part those surpluses results from a tightly knit set of import policies and government regulations that erect barriers to the sale of US manufactured goods and services.
On Jan. 30, the Japanese announced nearly 70 steps it was going to to take to open their traditionally sheltered domestic markets to more foreign business. But the White House says those steps do not affect trade in agricultural goods, banking, insurance, engineering, and many other areas of trade outside that for merchandise.