This opinion piece written by the New York Times editorial board analyzes the two major presidential candidates positions on international trade deals, primarily President-elect Donald Trump’s proposed isolationist policies. The article examines the increasingly common perception among the American public that trade agreements such as NAFTA and the TPP are responsible for causing economic hardships due to prioritizing global interests over American interests. The writers of this article oppose this view and present evidence to refute it. The authors have a liberal viewpoint on this issue and are pro-free trade, however they do concede that there are certain issues that need to be resolved as a result of these trade agreements. They disagree with Trump, viewing his statements as “nothing more than hot air”. The article sets out to dispel some common myths about international free trade deals and also takes a look at the development of the anti-free trade sentiment in the United States over the years.
Clinton currently opposes the TPP, however in the past she has praised it and called it the “gold standard” of international trade deals (Memoli). She seems to have shifted her views during the Democratic primaries against Bernie Sanders, who opposed the TPP his entire campaign, putting into question her true viewpoint. Meanwhile, Trump has consistently railed against international trade deals since the 1980s, when he criticized the US for importing more from Japan than they export. He also criticized NAFTA as it was being passed in 1993 and criticizes China for its trade practices. Trump’s opposition to trade deals seems to primarily stem from two main factors: loss of American manufacturing jobs to overseas countries and trade deficits with other countries. Clinton on the other hand believes that the benefits of free trade agreements outweigh the cons, and that these deals save American consumers money when they buy goods. Trump believes in protectionist policies and has a realist view on trade, believing in increasing the US’s power over it’s own economy and promoting it’s own self-interests. Trump often talks about “bringing back jobs” to the US, primarily in manufacturing and the auto industry. Trump’s views seem to focus on protecting and defending American interests. Clinton supports a liberalist view of free trade, economic interdependence, and a global marketplace where states can trade with each other for mutual benefit rather than just the benefit of the United States.
Trade deals have been a scapegoat for America’s economic problems for quite some time. As has already been mentioned Donald Trump was speaking out against Japanese trade practices as early as the 1980s and continues to do so today. One of his main concerns was their mass importing of cars and home electronics to the United States while the US exported far less. “When was the last time you saw a Chevrolet in Tokyo?” was a statement by Trump in his announcement that he was running for President, commentating on the fact that Japanese car brands such as Toyota are extremely popular in the US while Ford and Chevrolet have lackluster sales in the Japanese market. Japan mainly relied on producing their own goods over the years and has maintained a relatively closed market compared to other great economic powers. In 2015, the US trade deficit with Japan was $68.9 billion (“Foreign Trade” Census.gov). Trump also criticizes the US’s dealings with China, whom the US had a $367 billion dollar trade deficit with last year (“Foreign Trade.” Census.gov). From a realist point of view, this makes it look like the US’s best interests are not being served. It appears China and Japan are benefitting far more due to the fact they import far less American products than the United States imports from them.
From a realist perspective, these countries are gaining more in terms of relative gains and increasing in power, going against the fundamental realist goal of preventing other states from gaining an advantage in a relationship. A liberal may argue that these deals benefit both countries and are beneficial in several ways. For example, importing goods from overseas provides cheaper goods to the American consumer due to less material cost and lower wages for overseas workers. Buying goods from Japan and building the country up economically increases American sphere of influence into East Asia by having a powerful ally in Japan act as a potential deterrent against China, North Korea, and Russia. Another argument is that economic cooperation with China improves relations between both countries, lowering the likelihood of a conflict to arise. As China’s economic power increases and the gap between them and the US’s spot at the top of the world hegemony decreases, there is some concern that China might become more aggressive and become the dominant power. The liberal viewpoint is that if economic cooperation and collaboration exists between the two nations rather than hostility and competition, conflict is less likely to occur. If Trump were to impose tariffs, China would likely retaliate and it would result in a trade war. This would sever relations between the two countries and likely cause harm to both.
The two specific trade deals that have been mentioned often this election cycle are the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). NAFTA was a contentious issue ever since negotiations began under President George H.W. Bush in 1990. The bill took 4 years to pass and the main goal was to eliminate trade barriers between the three major North American powers: Canada, the US, and Mexico. NAFTA addressed several key economic issues regarding tariffs, intellectual property, and agricultural regulation. However, the American population were concerned this agreement would lead to more outsourcing and a greater dependence on foreign goods. Third party presidential candidate Ross Perot gained a large amount of popularity in the 1992 election primarily for his opposition to NAFTA and his America-first economic nationalist stance. American nationalism and patriotism is deeply embedded in the national consciousness, as is a sense of American exceptionalism. A large portion of Americans want to see their country do well and “be the best”, and they view their country as superior to other nations of the world. Trade deficits are often used as a populist political tool to rile up the patriotic masses, as politicians often point to them as an example of the US getting ripped off or taken advantage of.
This could tie into constructivism as these attitudes seem to be about protecting American identity/interests more than anything. Certain portions of the American electorate aren’t particularly well-informed on the intricacies of economics or world trade and see trade as more of an “us vs. them” economic showdown or competition where the US is losing. Explaining economic policy in greater detail would likely go over the heads of most voters, as there are certain nuances in trade deals that require an academic background in either economics or world politics to fully understand. For example, according to a survey of prospective voters conducted by Harvard and Politico, 70% of those surveyed had no idea what the specifics of the TPP were or hadn’t read anything about it. Of the remaining 30% who were aware of the agreement, 63% were against it. (“Americans ‘ Views on Current Trade and Health Policies” Politico.com). The TPP and NAFTA are deals based upon the liberal philosophy of free trade and the goals are to remove as many barriers to free trade as possible in a globalized economy. Part of the opposition seems to stem from an anti-globalization attitude that is becoming increasingly common.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t debate between economists on the effectiveness of these trade deals, however the pro-free trade position is the most commonly supported one. One of the unique aspects of the protectionist anti-free trade position is it’s support from both sides of the political spectrum. Both left-wing and right-wing politicians have spoken out against trade deals in the past. An example of this is in the current election with Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump both voicing opposition to NAFTA and TPP. This shows that it’s a popular viewpoint with a large number of Americans regardless of party affiliation. According to a survey conducted in March by the Pew Research Center, 53% of Republican voters believe free trade agreements have had a negative impact on the US economy. While the majority of Democratic voters according to that same survey believe free trade agreements have been positive for the US, Sanders supporters have a more negative view compared to Clinton supporters. Republican support for free trade deals has declined dramatically from May 2015, when 53% believed they had a positive impact. (“Views on Economy, Government Services, Trade.” Pew Research Center). According to the Harvard-Politico survey, 54% of Democrats surveyed believe free trade has lost more domestic jobs than it has created, compared to 66% of Independents and 85% of Republicans.
NAFTA was ratified in 1994 and has been in effect for 22 years now, more than enough time to properly assess its impact on the economy. A 2015 report by the Congressional Research Service summarizes the effect of NAFTA as “relatively modest”, neither causing the “huge job losses feared by critics” or “large economic gains predicted by supporters.” (“The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).” Congressional Research Services). One of the main concerns of NAFTA was the fear of losing manufacturing jobs to outsourcing. NAFTA is often used as a scapegoat for the loss of manufacturing jobs in the US. According to the op-ed, manufacturing jobs have been declining across the world as “the number of manufacturing jobs fell by 34 percent in Japan, 31 percent in the United States and 25 percent in Germany” (“U.S. Manufacturing in International Perspective.” Congressional Research Services), showing that there may be more to the issue than just NAFTA. Rather than any trade deal causing the loss of jobs, it’s more likely that automation and lower wages overseas have had a bigger impact. Development of new technology causes a gradual shift in the jobs available. For example, the American economy used to rely a lot more on agriculture. There were more farms and a larger amount of people living in rural areas. In 1870, 50% of the population consisted of people working in the agriculture industry (Daly). As of 2014, the number is now 1.4% (“Employment by Major Industry Sector.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. ). The manufacturing industry is similar to the agricultural industry in terms of decline. Both the farming and manufacturing sectors have had to deal with new technology becoming available to accomplish these tasks more efficiently.
This can be proven by the fact that more factories are actually moving back to the US in the past 2 years. Output is increasing. Despite this, the amount of manufacturing jobs isn’t growing as most of these jobs are being done by automation (Cheng). Trade agreements don’t seem to be the culprit as much as new technology and a shifting of priorities in the current economy. The United States has shifted largely to a service-based economy, with 80% of the workforce being in the service sector (“Employment by Major Industry Sector.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. ).
As many American blue-collar workers are finding it increasingly difficult to make a living due to the changing economy, free trade has become a target of vitriol. Protectionist, realist attitudes toward trade are becoming increasingly popular among the American electorate. Donald Trump’s stated policies during his presidential campaign seem to line up with this perspective. Trump has talked about renegotiating NAFTA and the TPP and imposing tariffs on Chinese imports. Trump has also made vague promises about bringing back American manufacturing jobs. The op-ed disagrees with his stance. Further analysis shows that free trade is not the primary cause of the loss of these jobs, and much of the disagreement stems from populist anger more than anything. Manufacturing jobs have been declining around the world due to various other factors, primarily automation and changing technology.