Momentous as it was, President Donald Trumpâ€™s impeachment on Dec. 18 might not go down in history as the most significant happening in the last month of the 21st centuryâ€™s second decade. Rather, that honor might be shared among three other events: bipartisan agreement on a revised trade deal with Canada and Mexico; Trumpâ€™s â€śphase oneâ€ť trade agreement with China; and the U.S.-blessed collapse of a key World Trade Organization (WTO) agency that adjudicates international trade disputes. Their short-run impact might be limited and, in the case of the Canada-Mexico and China deals, temporarily stabilizing. But donâ€™t be fooled. The big picture is that the United States is abandoning its postwar commitments to free, open, law-based trade in favor of a new approach: Might makes right.
Free trade can have painful costs, especially for certain U.S. industries and their workers who were unable to withstand global competition. We and other supporters of free trade should be more cognizant of those, if only because the political costs of failing to acknowledge and address them include the rise of protectionists such as Trump. Yet as the formerly pro-trade Republican Party falls into line behind the president and as many Democrats quietly, or not so quietly, cooperate with his agenda as well, the overall benefits of the postwar global economic order to the United States and the world are being deliberately ignored. Those include an abundance of well-made, affordable goods for U.S. consumers (including goods that emerged from U.S. plants made ultraefficient thanks to the bracing effect of international competition). Above all, they include hundreds of millions of people lifted out of grinding poverty around the world and fewer causes for war among interdependent nations.
By contrast, Trump has shown - in the agreement with Canada and Mexico - that the United States has enough economic clout to make relatively weak, dependent neighbors accept greater â€śmanaged trade,â€ť to the benefit of politically favored U.S. interests: specifically, a higher minimum wage for Mexican autoworkers and greater U.S. cheese sales to Canada. In regard to a far stronger counterpart - China - Trumpâ€™s tariff war accomplished not much more than a restoration of the status quo ante in U.S. agricultural sales, plus some eventual increases on top of that. As for the administrationâ€™s decision to let the WTOâ€™s appellate body go out of business due to lack of new judges, it is consistent with previous administrationsâ€™ concerns about the jurisprudence of that body - but inconsistent with the fact that the WTO had also often ruled in the United Statesâ€™ favor and thus merits a strong U.S. effort to reform from within.
Absent the WTO, and with Beijing and Washington governed by nationalist presidents, the world is likelier to drift back toward the regional trade â€śblocsâ€ť that caused so many problems between the world wars. This is precisely what farsighted U.S. postwar leaders sought to prevent when they constructed the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade after World War II, to be followed by the WTO post-Cold War. Trump would repeal these diplomatic and political achievements under the slogan â€śAmerica First,â€ť previously adopted by U.S. isolationists in the early 1940s. For those who know their history, this seems neither coincidental nor reassuring.