Election 2020

China and Europe Won’t Get Any Relief on Trade From Biden

Washington will not return as the champion of the global trading system. But it may stop being its biggest foe.

This article is part of Election 2020: America Votes, FP’s round-the-clock coverage of the U.S. election results as they come in, with short dispatches from correspondents and analysts around the world. The America Votes page is free for all readers.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden meets workers at the Fiat Chrysler plant in Detroit, Michigan on March 10.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden meets workers at the Fiat Chrysler plant in Detroit, Michigan on March 10. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

Under U.S. President Donald Trump, Republicans forgot everything they once believed about trade policy. The party of big business and free trade became the party of “America first” and high tariffs. If Joe Biden becomes president, moving forward on trade will mean cooperating with a Republican Party that now looks a lot more like the party of Sen. Robert A. Taft, the post-World-War-II isolationist, than Ronald Reagan.

In some ways, this will make life easier for the new president, whose own Democrats are split on trade. Biden has pledged to avoid any new trade agreements “until we’ve made major investments here at home, in our workers and our communities.” With Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell likely to remain in control of the U.S. Senate (though two runoff elections in Georgia could still change that), the chances of even minor such investments are close to zero. Were Biden to push ahead on trade deals regardless, he would risk a revolt from progressive lawmakers such as Sen. Bernie Sanders, who are still smarting over what they see as a sellout to corporate interests under the last two Democratic presidents.

That political hornet’s nest suggests a President Biden would do as little as possible on trade. But the world will not stand still. He would inherit a trade war with China, and any moves to ease U.S. tariffs would face significant congressional opposition. A hard line on Beijing is one of the few places where the two parties now agree. Europe would be almost as challenging: Biden is predisposed toward closer trans-Atlantic cooperation, but Republicans are likely to criticize any efforts to remove Trump’s tariffs on the European Union’s exports or revive the World Trade Organization. The lone Republican trade negotiating priority—a deal with a post-Brexit United Kingdom—would find little love on the Democratic side.

The good news for trading partners is they would no longer need to genuflect to Trump’s odd obsessions—from the dangers of bilateral trade deficits to his bizarre belief that China was enriching the United States by paying the tariffs charged to U.S. importers. Under Biden, Washington would not return as the champion of the rules-based trading system. But at least it might cease to be its biggest adversary.

Edward Alden is the Ross distinguished visiting professor at Western Washington University, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of Failure to Adjust: How Americans Got Left Behind in the Global Economy. Twitter: @edwardalden