Trump's America First Policy in Global and Historical Perspectives: Implications for US–East Asian Trade

By Park, June; Stangarone, Troy | Asian Perspective, Winter 2019 | Go to article overview

Trump's America First Policy in Global and Historical Perspectives: Implications for US–East Asian Trade


Park, June, Stangarone, Troy, Asian Perspective


Introduction

US Protectionism under Trump: The Causes of Disruption in the Global Economy and the Political System

Campaigning with reservations about free trade is not an uncommon in US politics. Bill Clinton campaigned on promises to improve the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and Barack Obama promised to renegotiate NAFTA if elected. However, once elected, US presidential candidates have governed as supporters of continued international trade liberalization. Until more recent times, the strong antitrade rhetoric seen from Donald J. Trump had primarily been espoused by minor, nonmainstream candidates such as Pat Buchanan (Chillizza 2016). Trump, in contrast to his predecessors, is the first post–World War II US president to reverse course on promoting international trade liberalization.

Instead, as a candidate and president, Trump has taken the position that the US economy and US workers need to be protected from international competition. In his first major speech on trade as a candidate in the summer of 2016, Trump argued that globalization had shipped US jobs and wealth overseas (Politico 2016). As president, he reaffirmed his views on international trade in his inaugural address, saying that "protection will lead to great prosperity and strength" (Trump 2017a). His appointment of key cabinet officials with a protectionist bent has reinforced the new policy direction at the White House.

Trump has followed through on his rhetoric and taken a series of protectionist steps. On his third day in office, he withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and affirmed that the administration would negotiate only bilateral agreements (Trump 2017b). With the objective of reducing the US trade deficit, the administration has renegotiated NAFTA and has completed the renegotiation of the US-Korea FTA (KORUS), while also seeking to use trade remedy law to protect US industries, including safeguards on solar panels and cells (Bown 2017). It has also taken the unusual steps of citing national security concerns to expand protections and announced the first self-initiated countervailing duty and antidumping duty case in more than twenty-five years (US Department of Commerce 2017). These actions may be the initial rounds in a new trade war with US allies and China.

This significant shift in US trade policy is a reflection of changes in the global economy and their effects on the US political system. The US share of global manufacturing has declined from nearly 30 percent in the early 1980s to 18.6 percent in 2015 (Levinson 2017). Over that same period, US manufacturing jobs have fallen from almost 19 million to just over 12 million (Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis n.d.). After China entered the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, import competition played a significant role in the decline of manufacturing jobs (Acemoglu et al. 2016). One consequence of this dislocation has been the election of fewer centrist US congressional candidates and an increase in the ideological divide in US politics. This has extended to national elections as well, where populist policies have become more appealing to voters (Autor et al. 2017).

Why This Matters

Protectionist trade policies are not a new phenomenon in the US; protectionism surfaced in the United States in the late 1930s, late 1950s, early 1960s, and post-1980s (Irwin 2005),1 with significant impacts on the US role in global trade. For instance, the volume of US imports fell over 40 percent in the first two years after the imposition of the Smoot-Hawley tariffs in June 1930 (Irwin 1998). In the 1990s, it was hotly debated in the US Congress whether the WTO Dispute Settlement Body would undercut US power to counteract unfair foreign trade practices and fail to serve US unilateral interests (Fergusson 2007). The United States did become the champion of trade liberalization in the process of establishing the WTO, but protectionist policies remained. …

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