Where Is Trade?
November 25, 2019
I had planned to devote this week’s column to an incisive commentary on the trade issues that were extensively discussed in last week’s Democratic presidential primary debate. Oh, wait . . . there weren’t any. Once again, there were no questions on trade policy, and it came up only peripherally once or twice. This is not new; indeed, most of the debates have ignored the subject.
This continues to baffle me. Trade policy historically has not been a major issue in presidential campaigns—the parties tend to nominate candidates who move to the center for the general election and try to avoid divisive issues, and pollsters view trade as a “low-intensity” issue. Voters have opinions about it but do not rank it as one of their top priorities. Now, however, the United States has a president who has made it one of his signature issues. He ran on it in 2016, and he doubtless will run on it again in 2020. If nothing else, that means the Democratic nominee, whoever that turns out to be, will have to have both a response to the president’s claims and a policy of his or her own.
Responding to the president so far has not been hard; in fact, it’s one of the things all the candidates agree on. They all make the same two points: whatever it is that he’s doing is both wrong and a policy failure, and his biggest mistake is his failure to build coalitions to tackle problems like China that affect many countries.
The point about coalitions is a valid one, and it has the advantage of not only being a criticism but also a policy—it is something positive that Democrats can argue they would do that he has not. The first argument, pointing out his failures, has some attractions to it, but it does not really move the ball forward. Ultimately, Democrats will have to have a policy that goes beyond “Trump is doing it wrong.”
I think we can assume that all the Democratic campaigns have eager young minions busily developing policy papers on virtually everything, including trade. Most of those will never be read by the candidates—trust me on that—but they nonetheless will stand as official statements of each candidate’s views. So far, here at CSIS, we have only found two that are public—Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and former representative Beto O’Rourke, the latter now departed from the race. I have commented briefly on Senator Warren’s proposals in the past and will do so again once there are some others to compare them to. Until then, let me offer some principles you can—or should—expect Democrats to embrace.
First, if they don’t welcome trade and globalization, they should at least acknowledge its inevitability. The world has retreated from globalization twice in history: after the end of the Roman Empire and after 1913 because of two world wars and a global depression—and most reasonable people would not support creating conditions that would lead to that happening again.
Second, Democrats should embrace multilateralism, the political foundation for economic integration. That means not only building the coalitions that Trump has avoided but supporting the multilateral institutions that Trump has neglected, including the World Trade Organization, where the administration is blocking progress on reforming the Appellate Body.
Third, they should acknowledge the damage trade has done to some Americans and should commit themselves not only to pursuing policies that try to avoid further harm but also to specific programs that will correct the damage that has been done and at the same time better prepare workers for the rapid changes occurring in the U.S. economy. That means both new entrants to the work force as well as older workers who are finding their skills are no longer as relevant as they used to be.
Fourth, they should lay out a plan for future negotiations that makes clear their priorities, including:
- Repairing the damage the current administration has done;
- Supporting the completion of pending negotiations, including the Environmental Goods Agreement, the Trade in Services Agreement, the proposed e-commerce negotiation, and others that may launch between now and the next presidential inauguration;
- Identifying and pursuing other plurilateral agreements they see in the U.S. interest;
- Returning to the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) or its successor and restarting talks with the European Union without preconditions in order to develop the rule-of-law based structures we collectively need to meet the Chinese challenge;
- Identifying additional regional or bilateral agreements that would be in U.S. interest.
Fifth, they should propose a comprehensive plan for meeting the China challenge that is more mature than tariffs and ad hominem attacks. Part of it is the creation of the institutions described above, but other parts should focus on more effective use of existing tools and institutions to combat Chinese practices that undermine the trading system and on improving U.S. competitiveness so the United States can better take on China in third country markets.
Obviously, not all the candidates could get behind all of that, but I believe it is consistent with where the majority of voters would like to go and certainly where the country needs to go if it is to thrive and lead in the next decade.
William Reinsch holds the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Commentary 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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