What Is Former Vice President Biden’s Policy on Trade?

This is the third in a series on 2020 presidential candidates and their trade policies. As more candidates release their detailed trade plans, the Scholl Chair will write similar in-depth analyses. Former vice president Joe Biden is the third major candidate to do so at length. Read our analysis on Senator Elizabeth Warren’s plan here and former representative Beto O’Rourke’s plan here.

While his record as a former U.S. senator and vice president is well known, Joe Biden has largely refrained from releasing any detailed policy proposals on trade during his presidential candidacy. After recently publishing his foreign policy agenda, Biden outlined how “American Leadership” has been lacking from President Trump’s policy of “America First.” While light on details when it comes to trade, Biden emphasizes the importance of training the U.S. workforce for a competitive global environment, a renewed commitment to reducing trade barriers, and a coordinated approach to negotiations with China that utilizes U.S. allies and international institutions.

Q1: Have Biden’s views changed since his time as vice president?

A1: Mostly no, but there are a few notable exceptions. Biden recently published an article in Foreign Affairs entitled, “Why America Must Lead Again,” which outlines his priorities for U.S. foreign policy and international trade. In a similar Foreign Affairs article in 2016, “Building on Success: Opportunities for the Next Administration,” Biden advocated for many of the same policies. The biggest shifts seen in Biden’s approach to trade do not necessarily reflect a change of opinion but rather a change of context.

Since 2016, the trade landscape has shifted away from Biden’s traditional vision of a rules-based, market opening, pro-free trade policy—a view that until the last presidential election had become the norm in both parties since the passage of NAFTA and the creation of the World Trade Organization in the mid-1990s. The Trump administration has embodied that shift with a mix of managed trade and trade liberalization while resurrecting unilateral tariffs to generate leverage during negotiations. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party successfully moved the trade debate over labor in their direction by driving the modification of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) and backing its subsequent passage.

Those changes may account for Biden making two clear changes to his approach to trade policy. The first is his emphasis on addressing domestic concerns over trade as a part of his “Foreign Policy for the Middle Class.” Biden describes this as more investments in health care, infrastructure, and education; increasing the minimum wage; and creating 10 million new jobs in a “clean economy revolution” before he would enter into any new trade agreements. The second is Biden’s pledge that all future trade negotiations would include input from labor and environmental leaders—including a renegotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Despite a shifting trade policy landscape, Biden still unashamedly embraces a U.S.-led, rules-based international order with an emphasis on reducing trade barriers and setting global trade standards.

Q2: How would a Biden administration handle the trade war with China?

A2: Biden has taken a position in line with the rest of the Democratic party: China should be held accountable for their unfair trade practices, but Trump has mismanaged the response. Instead of unilateral tariffs, Trump should have built an international coalition to confront China, according to Biden. As he noted in his article, “China can’t afford to ignore more than half the global economy.” By designating imports from Canada and the European Union a “national security threat,” Biden argues that Trump has damaged our relationships with important allies and prevented a more meaningful and long-term agreement from being achieved.

Commenting on what was accomplished in the phase one deal, Biden said, “[It] won’t actually resolve the real issues at the heart of the dispute, including industrial subsidies, support for state-owned enterprises, cybertheft, and other predatory practices in trade and technology.” While the United States was able to gain certain market access commitments in the deal, it required a $28 billion bailout to farmers, more than double the auto bailout that Biden assisted with following the 2008 financial crisis. Biden has not directly addressed if he would end the tariffs, though he’s made clear that the costs have not been worth what Trump has managed to extract from China thus far.

Q3: How does Biden’s approach to free trade agreements compare to other candidates?

A3: Senator Warren (D-MA) is the only other Democratic candidate still in the race to have released a detailed policy proposal on trade, which we discussed previously here. The main difference between the two candidates is their criteria for beginning trade negotiations. In Warren’s plan, countries must meet an extensive set of criteria focused on labor and environmental standards. By contrast, Biden would require investments in the U.S. workforce before entering negotiations. Both prerequisites, however, raise additional questions. For Biden, it’s unclear how he will determine when enough investment has been made in the American people for negotiations to begin. For Warren, it’s equally unclear if she will strictly hold to her list of international prerequisites given that few, if not zero, countries meet her requirements. In the case of the USMCA, for instance, Warren voted for the agreement even though Mexico, Canada, and even the United States did not meet all her required guidelines.

Biden and Trump on the other hand have fundamentally different trade policy objectives and views on the value of the postwar international trade architecture. Biden sees trade rules as a useful tool in the U.S. arsenal, whereas Trump appears to largely see them as constraining U.S. action and at times working against U.S. interests. Trump also views trade as zero-sum, transactional, and believes tariffs can be a net positive for the United States—manifested in his agenda to reduce the U.S. trade deficit. For Biden though, whether Trump expands or reduces the deficit with China won’t address the main problem. Biden believes the United States should be a rule-setter and work through multilateral coalitions to pressure bad actors. To make this point clear he states, “The answer to this threat is more openness, not less: more friendships, more cooperation, more alliances, more democracy.” Whether voters agree and will want more or less of Biden’s trade policy remains to be seen.

Jack Caporal is an associate fellow with the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. John Hoffner is an intern with the CSIS Scholl Chair.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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John Hoffner

Intern, Scholl Chair in International Business

Jack Caporal