Im-Politic: A World Trade Organization Pull-Out Proposal that Falls Sadly Short

Im-Politic: A World Trade Organization Pull-Out Proposal that Falls Sadly Short

I can barely describe how much I wanted to like Missouri Republican Senator Josh Hawley’s May 6 op-ed piece in The New York Times calling for a U.S. withdrawal from the World Trade Organization (WTO). That’s why I can also barely describe the growing disappointment I felt as I read through it.  At best, it deserves only an “A for effort” grade.

First, let’s give Hawley (considerable) credit where it’s due. As I’ve been arguing since it went into business at the start of 1995, and in fact was predicting during the national debate preceding Congress’ approval of the idea the fall before, the WTO has gravely harmed crucial American economic interests. (This recent post briefy summarizes my views.)

Let’s also give The Times op-ed page credit for running an article that’s even more strongly opposed to the pre-Trump U.S. trade policy status quo than President Trump has been – because although he’s approved policies that have thrown the WTO’s future into doubt, he’s never explicitly called for a pull-out, and in fact his administration has portrayed these measures as vital steps toward WTO reform.

Hawley, moreover, articulates many powerful indictments of the WTO’s failure to defend or advance U.S. interests satisfactorily – notably, the cover it’s given to China and other protectionist economies. 

Unfortunately, Hawley’s anti-WTO case and recommendations for going forward are fundamentally basedsed on two big misunderstandings. The first is that the pre-WTO global trading order set up by the United States was based on reciprocity, and therefore adequately safeguarded the interests of American workers. Absolutely not. In fact, the concept of reciprocity – holding that a country has no obligation to reduce its trade barriers any more than those of its partners – was explicitly rejected by the pre-WTO rules, which were known collectively as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).

Instead, this global trade regime was based on two principles that actually entitled protectionist countries to maintain higher trade and related economic barriers than those of freer trading countries. The first was called non-discrimination. It simply urged all member countries to treat all other countries the same trade-wise. So if, say, Japan largely closed its markets to one country, all it needed to do to satisfy GATT rules was to treat other countries just as badly.

The second core GATT principle was called national treatment. Under its terms, member countries agreed to treat foreign-owned companies the same as their own companies. So if, say, a country like (again) Japan, which was is still known for fostering cartel-like arrangements that favored some of its own companies over others wanted to discriminate against whatever foreign companies it wished, that was OK according to the WTO.

Some limited exceptions were permitted to both principles. But they explain in a nutshell why Japan’s trade predation (among others’) inflicted so much damage on U.S.-based manufacturing during the WTO period, and why its own economy (among others’) remained so hermetically sealed throughout.

The GATT’s only saving grace – as I just tried to hint by using terms like “urged” and “agreed”  – was that its rules were essentially unenforceable. All told, though, it’s a lousy model for post-WTO U.S. trade policy.

The WTO has featured a strong enforcement mechanism, which is why Hawley (and other critics, like me) have rightly argued that the organization has eroded U.S. national sovereignty. But at the same time, Hawley wants to replace it with “new arrangements and new rules, in concert with other free nations, to restore America’s economic sovereignty and allow this country to practice again the capitalism that made it strong.”

If the rules are for all intents and purposes voluntary, as with the GATT, then fine – although the question then arises of why the rules are needed in the first place. And the question becomes particularly pointed when it comes to the United States, whose longstanding role as the world’s importer of last resort has long given it more than enough unilateral leverage to create all by itself whatever terms of trade it wishes with any trade partner.

At the same time, this business about creating new arrangements with “other free nations” reveals a second major flaw in Hawley’s argument: a belief that there are lots of other countries out there that agree with the United States on defining what is and isn’t acceptable in international trade and commerce. That kind of consensus is a sine qua non of any rules-based system. In fact, it needs to predate the formal creation of that system. The existence of the system itself can’t summon it into existence – unless one or a group of members can force holdouts to accept the consensus, which brings us back to the question of why countries with those capabilities need a system in the first place.

But if anyone really believed in the required preexisting consensus before the CCP Virus struck, their conviction should lay in smoking ruins now. Because as of March 21, no fewer than 54 countries worldwide had been imposing export curbs of some kind on medical supplies, and the same think tank that compiled this data reported that, as of early April, that number had risen to 70. And their ranks included many U.S. allies. So it should be obvious that, when major chips are down, global trade becomes more of a free-for-all than ever.

Hawley has been among those leading U.S. conservatives and Republicans who are trying to develop a nationalist and populist approach to both domestic and international U.S. policy-making that can survive President Trump’s departure from the White House. (Another has been Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio.) And I’ve been very impressed by much of their work so far.

But if they’re genuinely concerned about transforming U.S. trade policy, they’ll recognize the need not only to pull the United States out of the WTO, but to replace that organization with a unilateral strategy incorporating the street smarts and the flexibility to free up America to handle its trade policy needs on its own. If others want to sign on and accept U.S. rules and unilateral enforcement, so much the better. But that kind of “America First” arrangement is the only kind of international regime that can adequately serve the national interest.

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