The Beginning of American Protectionism?


With the stroke of a pen, President Trump signed an executive order withdrawing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) on Monday. The TPP, a multilateral trade agreement, became a hot button issue this presidential election cycle. Although President Obama supported the agreement, neither major party nominee supported the TPP.

Secretary Clinton, the Democratic nominee for President, was accused of flip-flopping when she decided not to support the trade agreement she once infamously called the “gold standard” of free trade agreements.

President Trump’s decision to formally withdraw the U.S. from the TPP was among his signature promises of the 2016 campaign. The President often employed strong language when he decried the TPP and free trade in general, saying at a rally in Ohio that the TPP was “done and pushed by special interests that want to rape our country.” The President has also expressed his intention to renegotiate NAFTA.

Critics of the President’s decision to formally withdraw the US from the TPP often argue in favor of the economic benefits of the multilateral trade agreement. According to the Brookings Institute, the trade agreement was “expected to produce income gains for the United States on order of half a percent of GDP.” Critics also cite the geopolitical and strategic importance of a trade agreement in the Asia Pacific, where a rising China threatens to curtail US power in the region.

With resistance brewing from Trump’s own party, the United States is unlikely to enter a new era of protectionism, but President Trump’s trademarked unpredictability makes the future for trade difficult to foresee.

Eswar Prasad, trade policy professor at Cornell University, noted in The Washington Post that Trump’s decision to withdraw from the TPP “could have an adverse long-run impact on the ability of the US to maintain its influence and leadership in world economic and political affairs.” President Obama, for his part, noted that the U.S. “can’t let countries like China write the rules of the global economy.”

Recently, Georgetown Professor Pietra Rivoli gave an interview with Channel News Asia, suggesting that the trade agreement would survive at least in some form without US participation. She noted that although US and many European countries are “undergoing a wave of populism and protectionism,” that simply is “not the case” in many of the other countries in the agreement. Whether China will capitalize on the US withdraw from the TPP and craft its own trade agreements is still unclear.

The President’s decision to withdraw from the TPP perhaps marks the beginning of a protectionist era in the United States. It signals, moreover, that the President is serious about his attacks on free trade.

Yet, members of the President’s own party are not too thrilled about Mr. Trump’s stance regarding NAFTA, expressing reservations about his rhetoric against the 23-year-old trade agreement. Senator John Cornyn of Texas claimed he “didn’t see any benefit in trying to crawl back in our shell as a country.”

With resistance brewing from Trump’s own party, the United States is unlikely to enter a new era of protectionism, but President Trump’s trademarked unpredictability makes the future for trade difficult to foresee.

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Roberto was born and raised in Texas. He is interested in globalization and political responses to increasing global integration. Roberto is majoring in International Politics in the School of Foreign Service.