Many years ago, in my first posting in the State Department, I was a political officer in Mexico City while the North American Free Trade Agreement was negotiated. One of the jobs I had was escorting various delegations of Congressmen and congressional staffers around to their meetings when they came on fact-finding missions. Even though a Democratic president had just been elected and had announced his support for the deal, the most skeptical of these were always the Democrats. Democrats, due largely to heavy union influence, have always been more skeptical of free trade, while Republicans, until very recently, were the strongest in support of free trade.
It was one of the few areas in which I always have tended to agree with Republicans. They were right on this issue. Back in the 90s when I talked with these visiting staffers or Congressmen and they asked my opinion, I gave it. I told them that they were welcome to use the trade negotiations as leverage to obtain concessions in other areas, and they should push to have the highest possible labor and environmental standards placed in the agreement, but in the end they should vote for it. Because it was good for America and good for the world. And President Clinton as successful in convincing enough Democrats to vote for it to ensure passage, probably something that would have been impossible for a Republican president.
Virtually all experts in economics and international relations, both liberal and conservative, are in favor of free trade in general, and of most free trade agreements in particular. None of these agreements are perfect. In fact there are flaws in all of them. In pretty much all cases we did not, as a nation, get everything we asked for in those negotiations. That is the nature of negotiation – you have to make concessions on some issues in order to win concessions on others. Nonetheless for all their flaws, the web of free trade agreements begun after WW II, have been very, very good for America and for the world. They have generated tremendous amounts of wealth.
It has been well-documented that the wealth generated has not been distributed evenly in America, and some of the blame for that can be laid at the feet of the globalized economy, but not the majority of the blame. The majority of the blame must lie with the way we have structured our tax system to favor the wealthy, while simultaneously doing little to aid the poor and level the playing field. Those policy choices have virtually nothing to do with free trade. If it were truly all the fault of globalization, then we would see the same pattern in other nations, and it is not there.
The economic benefits of free trade have been significant. Frankly, however, they are dwarfed by the geopolitical benefits to America and the world. In tying the world more tightly together through trade, in strengthening military alliances with economic ones, we have pushed back the specter of war between major powers into something that is unlikely at best. It has now been more than seventy years since two or more major powers went to all out war with each other. The credit for that can be put squarely at the feet of the network of post-war political and economic institutions that have created a somewhat more just world, a world in which all nations have some say and feel some hope of advancing themselves. It has also been very successful at restraining America’s enemies in the world. allowing time for communism to burn itself out and putting pressure and some measure of accountability on dictators everywhere.
This web of institutions include the UN, the WTO, NATO and yes, a wide variety of multilateral and bilateral free trade agreements.
Now, a man ignorant of our history and without any knowledge of economics or geopolitics threatens to undue the careful and vital work of generations worth of American policymakers, both Democrat and Republican. In his ignorance and his desire to please the ignorant wing of his party that fueled his rise to power, he would burn it all down like a petulant and angry child unwisely given a book of matches and some lighter fluid.
Since his election, Donald J. Trump has reversed and undermined generations worth of careful diplomatic and policy work. He has alienated our friends and aided our enemies. He has threatened to withdraw from old and strong alliances. He has ceded influence around the world to China and Russia while trading pointless insults with another petulant child in charge of a small country.
And now he threatens, in his utter ignorance, to launch a trade war that could impact not just the wealth of the entire world, but it’s very stability. The only beneficiaries of such a trade war between the nations of the West would be China and Russia.
It is ironic that, while only a Democratic president could have a strong chance of expanding free trade, only a Republican is likely to be able to destroy it.