TRUMP AND TRADE — Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop?


Here’s some passages from my upcoming article in the China and WTO Review (Spring 2018) on Trump’s trade policies ………………


     The recently concluded WTO Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires, in December, achieved no significant accomplishments. During the conference, the United States Trade Representative (“USTR”) Robert Lighthizer made unsettling and acrimonious statements.

 The WTO is losing its essential focus on negotiation, and is becoming a litigation-centered organization …. Too often members seem to believe they can gain concessions through lawsuits they could never get at the negotiating table .… It’s impossible to negotiate new rules when many of the current ones are not being followed.

     Ominously, a few weeks after the Buenos Aires ministerial conference on the first anniversary of President Trump’s inauguration the administration submitted to Congress its report on China’s WTO compliance. It stunningly stated:         

It seems clear that the United States erred in supporting China’s entry into the WTO on terms that have proven to be ineffective …. [T]his mechanism (the WTO dispute resolution system) is not designed to address a situation in which a WTO member has opted for a state-led trade regime …

      Most recently, in his first State of the Union Address President Trump directly addressed global trade but only in five surprisingly short sentences. He neither announced any new trade actions, nor lambasted the global trading system or its institutions or specific countries. Interestingly, President Trump seemingly narrowed his concerns primarily to protecting American intellectual property rights through trade enforcement. President Trump simply stated:

The era of economic surrender is totally over ….We will work to fix bad trade deals and negotiate new ones …. And we will protect American workers and American intellectual property through strong enforcement of our trade rules.

     From 1995 to 2017, the US has been a complainant in 115 cases and a respondent in 130 cases at the WTO. It has won a huge majority of them as complainant and a majority of all cases. The US has been involved in nearly half of all WTO cases. Clearly, it is the greatest user of the dispute-resolution system.

     There was a 16-year high on private corporate actions (79 new investigations by the Department of Commerce) in 2017, undoubtedly inspired by the administration’s anti-trade rhetoric. The Trump administration during its first year conducted 82 major antidumping and countervailing investigations, a 58 percent increase over 2016. 

          The grave decline in cases brought to the WTO compared to other presidential administrations is historic. (None have been brought by the Trump administration.)

         The administration’s noise and tone are quite unsettling. Failure by the administration to act more forcefully so far is undoubtedly a result of the clash of domestic interests. But the rhetoric and posturing (over national sovereignty, unilateral measures, bilateral trade deals, sanctions, and trade deficits) are already impacting trade flows and diminishing the American standing in the global system. This is occurring even as domestic and global economies and public markets are rebounding significantly.

      Hopefully, these trade noises and recent actions are not an overture to really harmful policies. We’ll see pretty soon ……………



About Stuart Malawer

Distinguished Service Professor of Law & International Trade at George Mason University (Schar School of Public Policy).
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