Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Donald Trump: Anti-Trade Ideologue

By Max Boot
January 25, 2017

Donald Trump cannot be accused of being a consistent ideologue in the way that the liberal Barack Obama and the conservative George W. Bush were. He is far too erratic a thinker for that. On one subject, though, he has shown a striking degree of consistency for decades, and that is in his opposition to free trade.

Now, as president, he has a chance to do something about his fixation on supposedly unfair trade deals. On his first full workday in office, he signed an executive order withdrawing the U.S. from the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership. Begun under George W. Bush and continued under Obama, TPP has now been killed by Trump.

Granted, Trump was hardly TPP’s only opponent. Many Democrats of the Bernie Sanders stripe also opposed it. Even Hillary Clinton, after once praising it, felt compelled to disown TPP during the campaign. But there might still have been a chance for it to be approved by Congress before Trump’s election.

There are many things one can say about this decision, which symbolizes an abandonment of more than 70 years of American commitment to free trade. What leaps out most clearly is the extent to which Trump’s action on TPP is at odds with his larger policy objectives. He wants to create jobs, and he wants to roll back China’s power, especially its power as an American trade competitor. TPP, which involved countries with 40 percent of global GDP, would have helped accomplish both goals.

It would have, as Obama’s office of the U.S. Trade Representative estimated, have eliminated 18,000 taxes on American exports, thus boosting U.S. exports and creating more American jobs. Because TPP excluded China, it would have bound the U.S. more closely together, strategically and economically, with important trade partners across the Asia-Pacific region, including Japan, Malaysia, and Vietnam.

Now with TPP kaput, China is free to pursue its own economic zone, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which excludes the United States. “There’s no doubt that this action will be seen as a huge, huge win for China,” Michael B. Froman, the trade representative who negotiated the pact, told the New York Times.

If Trump had analyzed the costs and benefits of TPP dispassionately, he would have realized this. But on the subject of trade, he is an ideologue who is impervious to countervailing facts and arguments, just as Obama was on other issues (e.g., the costs and benefits of American troop drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan). Let us hope that Trump will at least limit the damage by negotiating a bilateral trade accord with Japan and other allies that are staunch supporters of TPP in spite of the fact that it will open their domestic producers to more foreign competition.

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