Shadow Government

Donald Trump Is a Disaster for Trade

Under a Trump presidency, whither free trade?

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My Shadow colleague Peter Feaver has done a noble job of taking Donald Trump seriously. He has examined what a Trump foreign policy might look like, as well as how a President Trump might deal with the military.

In that same spirit, we can think a bit about what a Trump nomination would do for trade policy and, in turn, U.S. foreign relations (disclosure: I write this as someone who supports the candidacy of Sen. Marco Rubio). This task is distinct from predicting what a President Trump would do in office. For that, one has to grapple with the question of whether Trump believes what he says. If he follows through on his trade threats, it would be a difficult time of broken alliances and significant economic disruption, as supply chains are torn apart through Trump tariffs and the inevitable retaliation that would follow.

But before we reach that point, a Trump victory in the battle for the Republican nomination could have serious effects this summer. Trump has been as staunch an opponent of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as there is. Even if his ultimate election appeared unlikely, this could have an important pull on the likely Democratic nominee, Secretary Hillary Clinton. That’s because she helped craft the TPP during its negotiation. After repeatedly praising the agreement as Secretary of State, Clinton renounced it as a candidate — for now, at least. Some of her supporters with whom I’ve spoken suspect this is a position of convenience. The TPP is vehemently opposed by the labor movement, and Clinton faces a primary challenge from a self-described socialist. Her supporters suspect — and her critics have suggested — that once the immediate electoral pressures pass, she will rediscover the strategic reasons to back the agreement (it is, for instance, the most substantive element of the rebalance to Asia).

Had Clinton faced off against Gov. Jeb Bush, she might have simply hoped to downplay trade questions during a general election campaign. She wouldn’t have wanted to say anything to rile her supporters, but also would not have been eager to limit her options as president. If both candidates essentially agreed, the issue could tacitly be set aside.

If she instead is running against Donald Trump, the situation will look very different. Unlike Bush, Trump seems a committed trade opponent who would use his protectionist stance to compete for many of the blue-collar, trade-skeptical workers whom she would need to attract in key states, such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio. He could see an electoral advantage in questioning her protectionist bona fides. There are two likely implications.

First, in a world in which both major candidates oppose the trade agreement, it would be that much harder to slip it through Congress this year. One optimistic theory has been that, facing a worrisome successor to President Obama, the Republican leadership might be more inclined to overcome its qualms and push the TPP through in a lame duck session. Not only does this overlook the difficulty of getting so much done in so little time, but it likely overestimates the ability of the Republican leadership to work its will on a reluctant membership.

Second, it is far more likely that Clinton would feel compelled to strengthen her condemnation of the TPP — perhaps a trade version of George H.W. Bush’s “no new taxes!” pledge. That would make it even more difficult for her to pivot back to the TPP if she won in November. That, in turn, could cripple efforts to make the pivot to Asia something more than mere rhetorical spin.

None of this is to concede the nomination to Donald Trump. As of this writing, he has 384 delegates, which is distinctly less than the 1,237 he would need to secure the nomination. It is only to point out that, were he to do so, some of the foreign policy ramifications could come well before November.

Photo credit: Sean Rayford / Stringer

Phil Levy is Senior Fellow on the Global Economy, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and teaches strategy at Northwestern University’s Kellogg Schoool of Management.

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