Trump’s ‘Home Alone’ trade strategy harmful to US interests

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Shortly before President Trump left for Asia earlier this month, he announced his plan to give America a big, beautiful tax cut for Christmas. He then packed his lead trade reindeer, Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, into the plane and headed overseas.

The president continues to tout his “figgy pudding” trade strategy,  but he’s reemphasizing his long-stated trade grab bag of one-on-one bilateral agreements, fabulous business deals and rigorous enforcement. At the same time, he has totally ruled out multinational deals, and all this comes just in time for the holidays!

{mosads}The proof of the success for these ideas still remains in the pudding. Let’s look at our new approach to trade agreements. While the world seems more interested in expanding trade relations and opening new markets, we are closing ours.


Not one major trade deal has been accomplished by this administration. Meanwhile, attempts have been made to unravel most (if not all) of the existing ones.

Our insistence on bilateral trade deals is finding few takers — possibly until pending negotiations are completed and partners can see whether they want President Trump on the other side of the table. Recently, we tried to force a bilateral agreement on Japan, and all we got for it were a few Japanese persimmons in exchange for some Idaho potatoes.

The news coming from our other negotiations seem dour, at best. The fifth round of NAFTA talks just concluded in Mexico, but they are so fractured that the trade ministers from U.S., Canada, and (even) Mexico will not be in attendance.

Talks that were to conclude by year’s end have now been extended into the first quarter of 2018, with little hope for resolution. The threat of withdrawal continues to hover over the talks.

At the same time, progress on the U.S.-South Korea trade agreement (KORUS) remains elusive, while the much-hyped U.S.-European trade deal has been all but forgotten, even as Europe moves forward with other partners. 

Meanwhile, group deals are in vogue. While the president was in Asia, the Trans-Pacific Partnership-11 (TPP-11) moved forward. What is the TPP-11? It’s the group of countries remaining in an agreement that we started, but unceremoniously left in Trump’s first days in office.

Likewise, a China-dominated trade deal — the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) — is evolving and could conclude in 2018. It would represent 39 percent of the world’s GDP.

The U.S. is not party to any of these new or renewed efforts and may be close to abandoning even more of the existing ones.

It seems America is now “Home Alone.” Our administration’s talking points, as we move toward U.S. trade isolation, now point fingers at institutions, such as the World Trade Organization, that used to guarantee our success on the world stage.

Instead of fairness and reciprocity, as we fight for market access and set global standards, we are instead told about how unfairly we are treated by the WTO and our trading partners. We argue that we have let trade deals surrender our technology, even as we contemplate surrendering leadership in the very bodies that can help us fight such technology theft.  

While our economy is now growing, fueled by the prospect of domestic tax and regulatory reforms, this is not sustainable if we pursue our new “Home Alone” trade strategy.

America’s six largest trading partners are China, Canada, Mexico, Japan, Germany and South Korea. These countries represent 77 percent of American exports, and we have picked schoolyard fights with all of them.

So far, we haven’t won anything, and while we continue to pick on our partners, they are moving on and forming their own agreements without us.

So, Mr. President, as we prepare for the holiday season, some things remain clear: You have made friends with our Asian partners, but now it’s time to trade with them; they are already trading with others.

Life goes on, but if we continue with our new found “Home Alone” strategy, we will be left with nothing but coal in our stocking, and a small bowl of figgy pudding.

Rick Helfenbein is president and CEO of the American Apparel & Footwear Association and is a strong advocate for a robust U.S. trade agenda and for “Made in USA.” He has appeared on CNN, CNBC, FOX, BBC and Bloomberg TV. Follow him on Twitter @rhelfen.

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