Washington, DC – Earlier this year I wrote a column titled, “Maybe Trump’s onto Something,” referring to the president’s trade policy. That produced more critical comments than all my other columns combined, reminding me—again—that here inside the Washington bubble, it is very difficult for people to separate the president’s personality from his policies. If you don’t like the tweets, the bluster, the insults, the implicitly sexist and racist comments, then it is a given that you don’t like his policies. People outside the bubble seem less troubled by that and are comfortable saying they don’t like the tweets or his attacks on other people, but they support what he is trying to do. I think that obligates us here in Washington to try harder to evaluate the president’s policies dispassionately. So, here goes.
Any evaluation must look both at the policy and its implementation—regular readers of this column may remember the story of the grasshopper and the ant. If the latter is flawed, then the merits of the policy end up being little more than a footnote.
The president’s trade policy has been accurately described as essentially mercantilist, overly focused on bilateral deficits, which virtually every economist will tell you are not an accurate measure of anything and obsessed with twentieth-century manufacturing as in autos and steel. His focus on the last century rather than the current one will seriously compromise our future competitiveness in the new and growing parts of the global economy that matter most.
At the same time, behind the mercantilism and autos/steel obsession lies an awareness that all is not well in the trading system. Unfair acts of various kinds are rampant, and the means of dealing with them are often slow, well after the fact, and particularly in the case of China inadequate to the task. In my view that is true, and it is true both with respect to U.S. law and to World Trade Organization (WTO) rules. The president seems determined to do something about that, and thus far he has certainly succeeded in putting those issues on the front burner and forcing other nations to address them, however inconvenient that may be. Psychologists will tell you the first step toward a cure is recognition of the problem, so we seem to be taking the right first step.
The logic of his tactics appears to be that first, we have a lot of lost ground to make up; second, other countries who have been benefitting from the status quo will resist change; third, we need to make it painful for them to resist; and fourth, Americans suffering collateral damage should be patient and wait for victory. The mantra is short-term pain will yield long-term gain.
He may be right about that. Softer approaches in the past have not worked, and it may well be that it is past time for a “disruptively constructive” approach as our ambassador to the WTO, Dennis Shea, said here at CSIS. If he were applying his logic only to China, he would be on solid ground. The administration makes a good case that past efforts have failed and that the rules and institutions we have to work with are not fully equipped to deal with the magnitude of the problem.
Unfortunately, he is applying the same logic globally finding fault with virtually all our trade agreements, including those like the North American Free Trade Agreement and the United States-Korea Free Trade Agreement—which observers would argue that they have served us well—and complaining about Japan and the European Union—both of which are close allies that we need on our side in meeting the China challenge. This one-size-fits-all approach dilutes his message and leaves our negotiating partners alienated and confused about his objectives, making them much harder to achieve and leaving us without friends when we need them.
In turn, his implementation also leaves much to be desired. The short story is that we have lots of tactics and no strategy, and most of those tactics involve punching the other guy in the face. That may work well in New York, but so far it has produced mixed results. Deals were reached with Korea, Mexico, and Canada, largely because the United States pulled back from its more extreme demands. There is so far no visible progress with China and much collateral damage, and negotiations with the European Union and Japan are just getting underway but promise to be difficult if we try to bully them the same way we did Mexico and Canada.
So, the bottom line is incomplete. On China, the president deserves credit for the right diagnosis of the problem and is entitled to some patience to see if his tactics work. (Of course, eventual success may be cold comfort to farmers who have gone broke while they were waiting.) On the completed agreements, he also deserves some credit for avoiding total disaster. (But note how the bar has gotten lower. We used to measure agreements by whether they increased trade. Now we measure them by whether they did no damage.) Elsewhere, the president gets a yellow card for failing to see the difference between China and everybody else, and for trying to take us back to the managed trade days of the 1980s.
This article originally appeared on CSIS.org and is published here with permission.