Make a New Plan, Stan

President Donald J. Trump signs the Section 232 Proclamations on Steel and Aluminum Imports

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Washington, DC –  By now it has become the conventional wisdom that our president is a disruptor, which is exactly why he was elected. His base of voters is mad at the swamp—the Washington elite and other policymakers that they see as dismissive of their concerns—and they voted for Trump because he said he would drain it. More important, and unusual for a politician, he seems intent on actually keeping his promises. Most campaign promises have a 12-18-month shelf life and then are quietly forgotten. In Trump’s case, however, they are alive and well and frequently cited.

And you can see his disruptive approach across the landscape in agreements or institutions he’s pulled out of (TPP, climate change, Iran, the UN Council on Human Rights), threatened to pull out of (KORUS, NAFTA, WTO), not pursued (TTIP and so far the promised bilateral agreements), or otherwise attacked (NATO, the G7). He clearly is not interested in maintaining the structures and approaches to trade and foreign policy that have been the hallmarks of American leadership for over 70 years.

Now, as the collateral damage of the tariffs and his other actions begins to pile up, people are beginning to ask, what’s the plan? What is the goal beyond more manufacturing jobs for Americans when the unemployment rate is already near record lows? The president’s base seems quite content to watch him come in and break a lot of furniture; after all, that’s why they elected him. But I can’t help but think they also expect him to build something new to replace what he is tearing down. Otherwise, all we have left when he has finished is a large pile of broken furniture. Having a plan does not mean revealing our strategy down to the bottom line, but it does mean convincing people that you have one—that there is an exit ramp from the trade war, and on that people are beginning to have doubts.

There are several consequences to this, all of them bad.

First is the collateral damage I mentioned. As the tariffs go into effect and uncertainty about the future mounts, companies are cutting back on workers and delaying investment plans, and consumers are moving into “wait and see” mode as prices begin to rise. The president is saying, “Relax, everything will turn out fine.” But he is not backing that up with either an explanation or consistency of message that convinces us there is a plan.

Second, it is apparent the world is unintimidated and is moving on without us. Last week, the European Union and Japan signed an Economic Partnership Agreement which will nearly eliminate all tariffs between the two, which together account for 30 percent of the world’s output. At the signing ceremony, President of the European Council Donald Tusk said:

We are putting in place the largest bilateral trade deal ever. This is an act of enormous strategic importance for the rules-based international order, at a time when some are questioning this order. We are sending a clear message that we stand together against protectionism. The European Union and Japan remain open for cooperation. Beyond trade, we are also agreeing a robust framework for dealing with a wide range of areas like security and defense, energy and climate or people-to-people exchanges.

He didn’t mention anyone, or any country, by name, but we all know who he was talking about. And this, of course, is not the only agreement. The EU has concluded or is working on similar ones with Canada, Mexico, Vietnam, and others. They have a plan for their future and are acting on it. Ours appears to be retreat and isolation.

Third, lack of vision undermines our moral authority and our global leadership. We didn’t win the Cold War because we had bigger missiles (we didn’t). We won because we demonstrated a better way economically and a better way socially by standing for things that mattered—freedom, democracy, human rights, and dignity and by opposing authoritarianism, dictatorship, arbitrary arrest, imprisonment, torture, and corrupt governments. Our record wasn’t perfect. We were occasionally, though not always, honest about our failings. But we showed the world we were honest for things that mattered and helped persuade them to follow our lead and make better lives for themselves.

Without that vision and the moral authority it conveys, we are becoming an ordinary country grubbing for its share of the pie and trying to make sure it gets a larger one than anybody else. I’ve never been a big exponent of American exceptionalism—it has always seemed egotistical to me—but those who do believe in America as an idea worthy of emulation should be appalled at the president’s rejection of so much of what we have stood for since World War II. In 1965, Barry McGuire sang “Eve of Destruction,” an angry song which became a civil rights and antiwar anthem for my generation. Sadly, we may be closer to that point now than we were then.

© 2018 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

William Reinsch
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William Reinsch holds the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and is a senior adviser at Kelley, Drye & Warren LLP. Previously, he served for 15 years as president of the National Foreign Trade Council, where he led efforts in favor of open markets, in support of the Export-Import Bank and Overseas Private Investment Corporation, against unilateral sanctions, and in support of sound international tax policy, among many issues. From 2001 to 2016, he concurrently served as a member of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission. He is also an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, teaching courses in globalization, trade policy, and politics.

Reinsch also served as the under secretary of commerce for export administration during the Clinton administration. Prior to that, he spent 20 years on Capitol Hill, most of them as senior legislative assistant to the late Senator John Heinz (R-PA) and subsequently to Senator John D. Rockefeller IV (D-WV). He holds a B.A. and an M.A. in international relations from the Johns Hopkins University and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies respectively.

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