U.S. Trade Policy Agenda in 2019? Fixing What’s Been Breaking Since January 20, 2017

Upon taking office in 2017, President Trump accused trade partners of underhandedness, demonized U.S. companies with foreign supply chains, and perpetuated the false narrative that trade is a zero-sum game requiring an “America First” agenda. He withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, threatened to pull out of North American Free Trade Agreement and the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, and initiated a war of attrition against the World Trade Organization by refusing to endorse any new Appellate Body judges until his unspecified demands were met. Yet, those were still the halcyon days of trade.

In 2018, straining all credulity, the Trump administration dusted off a seldom-used law (Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962) to impose tariffs on imported steel and aluminum from most countries on the basis that national security is threatened by U.S. dependence on foreign sources of these widely available commodities.

Later in the year, invoking another controversial U.S. trade statute (Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974), which is widely considered an act of vigilantism under WTO rules, the administration announced tariffs on $50 billion worth of imports from China for alleged unfair practices, such as forced technology transfer and intellectual property theft. When Beijing retaliated with tariffs on U.S. agricultural products, Trump announced that he would hit another $200 billion of imports from China with tariffs. Once again, Beijing responded by broadening its list of targeted U.S. products and the president subsequently threatened to apply U.S. levies to all imports from China (over $500 billion in 2017).

To be fair, U.S. trade policy in 2018 wasn’t only rancor, hostage-taking, and trade war. Juxtaposed against this contentious, grievance-based, enforcement-oriented U.S. posture was some “trade liberalization.” Instead of withdrawing from NAFTA and KORUS, the Trump administration renegotiated both. Both included some liberalizing provisions, but also some lamentable, protectionist retrogression, which wasn’t totally unexpected given that, in both cases, U.S. insistence on renegotiation was motivated less by an interest in updating, expanding, and modernizing the agreements than by a desire to revise provisions that would—at least nominally—tilt the playing field in favor of U.S. workers and certain manufacturers.

As 2019 begins, five major issues cast long shadows over the trade policy landscape. First is whether and how the U.S.-China trade war will be contained, scaled back, and ultimately ended. Second is the looming possibility that the Trump administration will invoke national security to impose sweeping new tariffs on automobile imports. Third is the question of whether and when Congress will pass the implementing legislation for the new NAFTA (the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement or USMCA). Fourth is whether, when, and how the crisis at the WTO will be resolved. And fifth concerns whether the Trump administration has the wherewithal to make good on its stated intentions of negotiating new trade agreements with Japan, the European Union, the Philippines, possibly the United Kingdom, and other countries. With much of the rest of the world moving forward with a slew of new trade agreements and the United States stuck on revamping old deals, the real and opportunity costs to U.S. businesses, consumers, and taxpayers continue to mount.

Throughout the year ahead, these major issues will be the predominant focus of the research and writing of the Cato Institute’s Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies.