Midlands Voices: Abandoning the post-WWII trade structure carries big global risks



James R. Martin | Omaha World-Herald

Recently, the USMCA trade deal was passed by Congress to ballyhoo from the White House, and whispers of progress from contentious trade negotiations with China continue to emerge. International trade is very consequential for the people of Nebraska and the United States. It also has far-reaching implications for our trading partners and the international system. President Donald Trump’s “America First” approach to international trade has emphasized disruption with three tenets: a) using U.S. power to force concessions; b) the emasculation of global institutions such as the World Trade Organization; and c) to de-prioritize the influence of multinational corporation

Three years in, Trump has been largely successful in achieving these. Many argue that such an approach is long overdue, citing China’s well-documented use of questionable trade practices, the inequities of the NAFTA trade agreement and the arcane nature of WTO rules. However, U.S. exports have not grown. Rather, these prioritize domestic production over global market engagement and reduce cooperation globally. In a recent Wall Street Journal interview, Robert Zoellick, a Bush-era chief trade negotiator, said: “If your metric is that we’ve stopped bleeding ourselves, then these have been a plus. … If your metric is whether we’re expanding trade, opening markets and setting higher standards, then these have been a total waste of time.”

Zoellick’s observations are backed by data. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis and the World Bank, U.S. exports have remained largely flat for the last five years, and net exports have moderately declined since 2017. The proportion of exports to gross domestic product has remained flat, as well. In sum, Trump’s policies have not expanded our share of the world markets — in revenues or proportional terms — during a period of economic expansion for the U.S. and world economies. Whether these policies may provide such outcomes is unknown; the results will take years to manifest.

By kicking out the supports from the international system, Trump may have reanimated the specter of those dark times. When considering the dismissive approach the Trump administration has taken toward international agreements among the world’s global military powers, as well as the decline of democratic governance worldwide, the harvest of “America First” may be bleak.

James R. Martin, of Omaha, is an assistant professor of interdisciplinary leadership at Creighton University.

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