By 2016, the Obama administration had successfully negotiated the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade agreement between the U.S. and virtually every Pacific Rim country except China. It was going to create the single most powerful trading block in the world — with America at its helm. We and our allies were going to shape the future of trade, and anybody else who wanted to play in the big leagues would have to play by our rules.
Getting it ratified was the single biggest thing we could have done to tighten the screws on China and Russia.
Then we decided to scrap it. This isn’t Donald Trump’s fault — or not just his fault. It’s true that Republican voters turned on trade deals because even though we were making the rules, they believed the rules were stacked against us. But Democratic voters also turned on trade, because it’s a thing that corporations do. So Hillary Clinton vowed to eliminate the TPP if elected.
We’ll never know if she would have kept that promise — I kind of doubt it, actually, but let’s take her at her word and imagine that, just this once, she wasn’t pandering to somebody.
The point is that the voters of both parties agreed that America should not be making multilateral trade treaties. And since 2016, we have not only scuttled the TPP, but stated a trade war with virtually every nation that is disposed to like us.
What do you think has happened next?
Two of the allies we’ve alienated, Japan and the EU, are now in the process of signing their own trade deal without us.
They are now trying to set the rules for international trade — and if they can get more of the countries we abandoned on board, then, they stand a good chance of doing it. And as it happens, the EU is already negotiating its own deals with Australia, Vietnam and, yes, China.
What does this mean? It means that the rules of global trade will stop caring what American exporters think. It means that American goods will face tariffs going into Japan that European competitors will not, and that Japanese goods will now have an advantage going into Europe that we will not. It means that America’s voice will be diminished fighting for intellectual property rights that protect our films and software producers. It means that whole areas of American production could get frozen out of emerging trading blocks.
It means that the Trump administration is already trying to get a $12 billion bailout package for our farmers to make up for business they lost to tariffs. And it’s probably only going to get worse.
Much of the damage has already been done — we will almost assuredly never get an opportunity as good as the TPP was, at least in our lifetimes. It was incredibly complicated to negotiate, and even if we wanted back in again (which we should), nobody we were negotiating with trusts us anymore. We could, of course, stop making it worse for ourselves, if we really wanted to. But we don’t seem to. Instead we’re claiming that Canadian imports represent a threat to our national security, so we’re clearly not done making self-destructive decisions.
It’s going to take a while for the ramifications of this to really start to sink in; institutions and treaties move more slowly than tweets. But make no mistake, the world is going to get harder and harder for American exports to reach. International trade law won’t help us, because these days we’re the ones violating it and it’s not like we have any friends left in the world who will go to bat for us. Not after the way we’ve treated countries that would have stood by us through thick and thin.
And nothing anybody tweets can stop it. That’s not how real business gets done.
Benjamin Wachs archives his work at www.FascinatingStranger.com. com. Email him at Benjamin@FascinatingStranger.com.