Saturday, May 6, 2017
Perhaps one of the most curious developments of the past 100+ days of the Trump administration has been the lack of progress on the trade front. The only campaign promise that has been delivered on is the withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which to give President Trump credit, was done the next business day after he was sworn into office, on January 23, 2017.
For his hundredth day in office, President Trump was set to announce the US’s withdrawal from NAFTA, a move he soon backtracked from when informed that many of the areas that would be hardest hit were heavily Trump-supporting agricultural areas. It is unclear when and if NAFTA will be renegotiated, although it seems likely that, rather than unilateral withdrawal, the United States will instead attempt to renegotiate the agreement with Canada and Mexico.
The TPP page on the USTR website has finally been updated to reflect the withdrawal (for several months the full text remained, along with praise for the agreement). Despite President Trump’s rhetoric regarding the awfulness of the deal and the need to renegotiate NAFTA, however, the NAFTA page continues to extol the virtues of the current agreement.
That trade has not been a priority is especially clear from the state of the Office of the United States Trade Representative. The USTR Twitter account hasn’t tweeted since October 2016. Robert Lighthizer, Trump’s official nominee, has yet to be confirmed, delayed by the need to obtain a waiver of the rule prohibiting persons who represented a foreign government from serving as US Trade Representative. (Interestingly, a provision in the new budget bill has bypassed the waiver requirement, even though he would not be the first USTR appointee who needed a waiver and it seems clear that his representation of foreign governments in the 1980s and 1990s does not pose any conflict of interest.)
In March 2017, President Trump appointed Stephen Vaughn, a member of his transition team, acting United States Trade Representative. The positions of Deputy Trade Representative and Deputy Trade Representative in Geneva (which deals with the WTO) remain vacant. Given Lighthizer’s bipartisan support, it appears likely that he will be confirmed in the near future, which should pave the way to a more functional USTR.
With trade having been such an important talking point of the election cycle on both sides of the political spectrum, the disregard for trade policy in recent months is indicative of chaos in the administration and the well-documented conflict between Trump’s campaign populism and presidential status-quoism. As my co-blogger, Alison Peck, noted in her post on trade and security in Asia, trade policies are not conducted in a vacuum.
In an interesting twist, with China recently banning the import of North Korea coal and turning back coal shipments in an effort to pressure North Korea into curtailing its nuclear testing, the United States has stepped up as a major coal supplier to China. The United States supplied no coking coal (used for making steel) to China between 2014 and 2016, but supplied 400,000 tons in February 2017. If President Trump is going to make good on his promise to revitalize the American coal industry, this is certainly one way to go about it.
So where does this leave us?
NAFTA is likely to be renegotiated at some point. President Trump has also suggested replacing TPP with bilateral agreements. The irony there is that TPP was largely based on recent US FTAs, with entire chapters containing almost identical language to that found in agreements such as the US-Chile FTA and the US-Korea FTA. This was a US-driven text that would have been great for US business interests (there were plenty of other issues with TPP, but those are outside the scope of this post).
Both Lighthizer and Vaughn are trade law experts and understand the realities of international trade policy. It is hard to imagine them straying far from the existing bilateral FTAs. Since the USTR will be led by pragmatists, once it is ultimately fully staffed, it seems likely that any new bilateral agreements and a potentially renegotiated NAFTA will reflect much that is already existing. Of course, this all remains to be seen, and if support for President Trump were to wane in agricultural regions of the country, the possibility of unilateral withdrawal from NAFTA of course remains on the table.