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Donald Trump’s speech on foreign policy on Wednesday has been widely and predictably misrepresented. The Economist, for instance, claimed to see many “errors” there, yet curiously failed to identify a single one.
In suggesting his proposed strategy is riddled with contradictions, the only substantiation the magazine offered was this:
He….vowed that his America would be a “reliable friend and ally again”. But moments earlier he explained how he would begin his presidency by summoning allied leaders for a summit to discuss how they “look at the United States as weak and forgiving and feel no obligation to honour their agreements with us.”
Pace the Economist and its compulsion to belittle the Trump phenomenon, his attitude to allies is no way contradictory. He is evidently referring to trade agreements and is saying that just because a nation like Japan or South Korea is classified as an American ally does not relieve it of an obligation to honor its trade agreements. If such nations continue to discriminate against U.S. exports, it will be they, not a Trump-led America, that will fall short on obligations of friendship.
Trump’s larger point is that for any serious future Presidential administration, trade can be a powerful lever in influencing foreign partners – and not just China, whose rivalry with the United States is now obvious and ever-present, but nations like Japan, South Korea, and Germany, which have long used saccharine-sweet professions of friendship towards the United States to try to slough off their trade obligations.
So much for the broad outline of Trump’s strategy. But if it is to work, he will need a small army of reliable aides to implement it. Although he has already named several advisors on other issues, he seems not yet to have reached out to any trade experts. Yet in trade more than almost any other area of policy, the devil is in the details and a President simply has to delegate much of the strategizing and most of the negotiating to trustworthy aides. The evidence of history is that the caliber of trade negotiators in the past has generally fallen way below what the American nation is entitled to expect.
The challenge for Trump is to find aides who cannot be either corrupted or broken (in the latter case, via, for instance, blackmail).
The traditional first port of call for administrations in search of warm bodies is, of course, the Washington think-tank industry. But far too many think-tank types are hired guns whose only loyalty is to their own pocketbooks. In any case, almost without exception think-tanks are on the wrong side of the issues. So too for the most part are Washington law firms and Ivy League universities.
A major part of Trump’s problem will be transforming the culture at the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR). Hitherto the USTR seems to have been peopled largely by an amoral breed of young lawyer for whom, in typical revolving door fashion, government service is just a stepping stone towards the real deal, a big paying job in the private sector. For such people, and their likely future employers in the Washington foreign trade lobby, a reputation for standing up for the U.S. national interest is not considered an asset.
Yet Trump is right to prioritize trade. It is not only a field that has long cried out for strong presidential leadership, but it is one where, given aides of appropriate commitment and strength of character, a future President Trump could aim for large early victories.
As a practical matter, however, people of the appropriate caliber are not thick on the ground. Some of the most clear-sighted trade economists moreover are left-leaning Democrats like Robert Kuttner, Jeffrey Madrick, and Robert Scott who will probably not be available to a President Trump.
Meanwhile some key figures who in a previous life came to national attention as trade hawks have long since tiptoed away from their former positions and have even in some instances cosied up to persistently protectionist nations (it may not be a coincidence that such nations are noted for big-budget attempts to subvert intelligent American criticism of their trade policies). In the nature of things, such experts are better left unnamed but a useful litmus test is the extent to which they have written about, say, Japan’s globally crucial car market. That market remains as closed as ever and provides the Japanese car industry with a high-profit sanctuary from which to “target” world markets.
A further problem is that many people with deep knowledge of the issues (acquired typically in the 1980s and 1990s, when trade was last a hot-button issue) are now in their late 60s or older. Whether they will be as enthusiastic as the 69-year-old Trump for a new challenge is anyone’s guess.
All that said, let’s name some appropriate names. Two people Trump should call immediately (if he hasn’t already done so) are Patrick Buchanan and Pat Choate.
Buchanan ran for President as a third party challenger in both 1992 and 1996 and among his top issues were America’s ill-advised trade strategy and trade’s role in American industrial decline. A familiar face to the American public from a long career as a television commentator, Buchanan is an erudite historian who first came to prominence as a senior advisor to Richard Nixon in the 1960s.
As for Choate, he was Ross Perot’s running mate in a 1996 presidential campaign in which they strongly challenged Bill Clinton’s trade policies. An institutional economist positioned on the moderate right, he is a noted expert on the shortcomings of extreme laissez-faire. He is also the author of Agents of Influence, a bestseller on the Washington trade lobby, and in recent years has served as an advisor to corporate America on international patent problems.
Here are a few other well-informed and reliable trade experts whom Trump should seek out at the first opportunity:
Dan DiMicco. In his former capacity as chief executive of the Nucor steel company, DiMicco fought many trade battles and is an expert on East Asian dumping.
Ralph Gomory. A noted applied mathematician and former head of research at IBM, he is the author, with William Baumol, of Global Trade and Conflicting National Interests. In this book and follow-up papers, Gomory has challenged the theoretical foundations of textbook free trade theory.
Kevin Kearns. Head of the U.S. Business and Industry Council, an organization representing domestic manufacturers, Kearns formerly served as a foreign service officer in Germany, Korea, and Japan, and in that capacity observed first-hand the obstacles faced by US companies in trying to export to key foreign markets. In Japan, he opposed the give-away of American taxpayer funded aerospace technology to the Japanese FSX program.
Robert Lighthizer. A partner in the Skadden Arps law firm and a former deputy United States Trade Representative (USTR), he divides his time between traditional trade litigation, policy advice, and legislative initiatives. He represents heavy manufacturing, agricultural and high-tech companies and has been lead counsel in countless antidumping and countervailing duty cases.
Richard McCormack. Publisher of Manufacturing & Technology News, a well-regarded newsletter, McCormack is an expert on the practical problems faced by U.S. industry in competing in rigged global markets.
Peter Morici. A professor of international business at the University of Maryland and a former advisor to the U.S. International Trade Commission, he is one of the few prominent academic economists who forthrightly challenges his colleagues’ ivory tower commitment to unilateral free trade.
Patrick A. Mulloy. A lawyer who served five two-year terms on the bipartisan United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission, he currently serves as a consultant to non-profit groups interested in reforming U.S. trade and economic policies.
Michael Sekora. A noted physicist, he founded Project Socrates, a classified U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency program established in 1983 within the Reagan administration. He holds that the cause of U.S. industrial decline is that U.S. decision-makers abandoned technology-based planning and adopted economic-based planning at the end of World War II.
Alan Tonelson. As research fellow at the U.S. Business and Industry Council Educational Foundation, he has written extensively on free trade and globalization and their role in U.S. industrial decline.
How realistic is it to hope that a future President Trump can bring America’s now persistently disastrous deficits under control? Many observers are daunted at the scale of the undertaking. Kevin Kearns, for instance, believes that the organizational effort required will be monumental.
“ Trump will need to formulate a comprehensive plan to fulfill his promise to bring back jobs to America,” Kearns comments. “It will involve not just USTR and the Commerce Department, but also Treasury, Defense, Energy, Labor and other departments and agencies. He will have his work cut out finding people who share his vision and are willing to man the various federal government positions to carry out his plans. They exist, but they are few and far between. And certainly, there are legions of lobbyists, think-tankers, and academics who would be only too glad to take a job and subvert his program.”
Eamonn Fingleton is the author of In Praise of Hard Industries: Why Manufacturing, Not the Information Economy, Is the Key to Future Prosperity (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999).