A New Horizon in U.S. Trade Policy



Trevor Sutton, Mike Williams | The Center for American Progress

Key Developments and Questions for the Biden Administration

Under President Biden, the United States is reinvigorating its trade policy to better confront the major challenges of the 21st century, but key questions remain.

U.S. trade policy—and with it the rules and institutions that constitute global economic architecture—has rarely been static. But over the past five years, beginning with the passage of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada-Agreement (USMCA) and continuing with the Biden administration’s innovative trade initiatives currently being negotiated with partners in Europe, Asia, and the Americas, the future of U.S. trade has never been more open-ended.

Climate, once largely absent from global trade rules and agreements, has vaulted to the forefront of U.S. trade priorities. By contrast, market access, long considered the fulcrum of trade deals, is absent from the Biden administration’s signature trade initiatives in the Asia-Pacific and is being deployed selectively in a sectoral arrangement with the European Union involving steel and aluminum. These new policy directions are occurring against several major shifts in domestic economic policy and global economic governance: 1) a pivot toward industrial policy in the United States driven by three major pieces of legislation—the Inflation Reduction Act, the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA); 2) a dramatic turnabout in global attitudes toward supply chain management and the balance between efficiency, resilience, and security in cross-border trade; and 3) the obsolescence of the World Trade Organization (WTO) as a forum for resolving trade disputes.

This issue brief examines some of the key trade initiatives pursued by the Biden administration to date. It then sets out key questions facing U.S. trade policy in a global environment defined by volatility and renewed ambition to tackle the great challenges of the 21st century, such as climate change, inequality, and great power competition.

Overview of key trade initiatives

Over the past two years, the Biden administration has pursued a number of innovative trade initiatives that in different ways aim to redefine the scope and purpose of U.S. trade relations. These initiatives differ both in structure from traditional free trade agreements (FTAs) and also in their substance, most notably in the emphasis they place on climate aims and worker empowerment over tariff reductions.

Variation on a multilateral theme

The United States’ decision not to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) it negotiated—now the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP)—highlighted the skepticism among policymakers and the American public of traditional trade agreements. This does not mean that the United States should or will step back from multilateral engagement and even direct trade negotiations that could lead to enhanced access to the U.S. market, but it has forced a reimagining of what economic engagement looks like. Four examples of this are already underway in the Biden administration:

  • The Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF): Launched in May 2022, IPEF established a framework for negotiations among 13 nations: Australia, Brunei, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, the United States, and Vietnam. These negotiations aim to establish an updated model of economic engagement across borders. Market access is not on the table, but there are four pillars that offer broad and potentially substantial levels of investment, regulatory alignment, and coordination around industrial standards and supply chains between the United States and participating nations—depending on the specificity of the outcome and its implementation. These pillars are: 1) connected economy, or trade; 2) resilient economy, or supply chains; 3) clean economy; and 4) fair economy. IPEF members may select among the pillars and are not required to agree to all four.

    There are two key points to consider: First, the nations associated with IPEF have significant—though not complete—overlap with the nations that negotiated the TPP. This clearly shows that economic engagement in the Indo-Pacific remains a priority for the United States, even if the nature of that engagement has shifted.

    Second, and related, the different pillars of IPEF use language that closely resembles previous FTAs without incorporating market access mechanisms—such as tariff reductions—that raised valid concerns on the part of climate and worker advocates in the United States. For example, the “connected economy” pillar seeks to increase and improve trade among the 13 nations by collaborating and coordinating on core issues such as labor rights, environmental protection, transparency in rule-making and regulations, and facilitation measures such as simplifying customs procedures.

  • The Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity (APEP): Since June 2022, the U.S. State Department and U.S. trade representative (USTR) have engaged with partner countries across the Americas—Barbados, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, Peru, and Uruguay—on a similar series of negotiations aimed at producing a similar set of commitments as IPEF. The ongoing consultations have five focus areas: 1) reinvigorating regional economic institutions and mobilizing investment; 2) making more resilient supply chains; 3) updating the basic bargain; 4) creating clean energy jobs and advancing decarbonization and biodiversity; and 5) ensuring sustainable and inclusive trade.

    The APEP negotiations do not have as clear of a precursor as IPEF, which can partially explain the interesting collection of nations associated with this effort. Politics and existing trade relations vary among the included nations—though, on the latter, most of the nations included already have existing bilateral trade agreements or frameworks with the United States. With Ecuador, the United States has a Trade and Investment Council. With Uruguay, there is a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement. Barbados is the only nation where there is currently no agreement or framework. The rest have an existing FTA.

  • The U.S.- Taiwan Initiative on 21st- Century Trade: Also in June 2022, the United States and Taiwan began consultations over ways to deepen the trade and economic relationship between the two nations. This evolved into official negotiations focused on building out the details listed within the negotiating mandate, which has similar construct and charges as IPEF and APEP—notably, a commitment to focus on core issues related to trade facilitation that could help further open economic doors, potentially in the form of an FTA.
  • The U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council (TTC): Among the Biden administration’s earliest trade-related actions, the establishment of the TTC occurred as part of a broader statement of joint work and commitments between the United States and the European Union. The TTC’s main charge is to foster cooperation in trans-Atlantic trade and investment, specifically focused on emerging technologies and infrastructure.

    The just-announced Clean Energy Incentives Dialogue will be a part of the TTC and focused on coordinating incentive programs. The main goals will be to avoid trans-Atlantic trade tensions and to ensure that such programs are mutually reinforcing and do not simply lead to windfall profits for companies that could play the two against each other for more and better subsidies. This type of dialogue is necessary to guard against excessive corporate welfare and keep the focus on clean energy deployment and strong domestic economies.

Trevor Sutton is a Senior Fellow at The Center for American Progress

Mike Williams is a Senior Fellow at The Center for American Progress

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