Author: Charles R Hankla, Georgia State University
US President Joe Biden’s administration must find a way to partake of former president Donald Trump’s controversial trade policies, especially related to China. Some hope (or maybe afraid) that Biden will return US policy to a reformed version of liberal internationalism before Trump, embracing free trade and global economic leadership. However an integrated approach between liberal internationalism and populism is more likely.
The liberal internationalist approach will see Biden lead the United States to Trans-Pacific Partnership – a trade agreement between 12 Pacific nations that Trump abandoned in 2017 and have since become smaller Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He might as well restart the momentum towards Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union and negotiate new trade terms with the post-Brexit UK. He can refresh again that World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiation process while putting it down dispute resolution process in a firmer place.
Biden has signaled that he can accept traditional forms of liberal internationalism. In 2017, he gave defense of the liberal international order at Davos and in 2020 him publish a paean for US leadership in Foreign affairs. But Trump has violated the post-war consensus support free trade. Trade politics has changed, with skepticism trading on left and now stronger. This shows the possibility that Biden will continue its predecessor’s populist policies on trade, with a focus on protectionism and unilateralism.
The difference between liberal and populist internationalist policy directions in the United States is striking in Chinese policy. A liberal internationalist Biden will adopt a traditional US approach to China’s rise. He will see China’s economic growth as an opportunity for US businesses and will hope to manage any threat Beijing might pose by integrating it into international institutions and law.
However, Biden could add a strategic vision to Trump’s erratic and disorganized trade policy, and he may take a more aggressive position against Chinese trade practices deemed unfair. For example, he may impose trade penalties for manipulation of Chinese currency or intellectual property rights infringement. The Biden administration could also see trade protection as one of the many policy instruments available to punish China for the non-trade-related behavior it objects. This may include human rights violations against the Uighurs and aggressive behavior against Taiwan or in the South China Sea.
The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report is recently titled Foreign Policy for the Middle Class and co-written by Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, might explain the plans for a new government. It lays out a vision for a more integrated approach to US foreign relations, one that is neither purely liberal internationalist nor purely populist. Biden has been supported reports and broad concepts build policy around the interests of ordinary Americans, however defined.
A ‘foreign policy for the middle class’ aims to consider how any action will affect the lives of most Americans. It intends to build broad coalitions around US foreign policy, prevent a shift from internationalism to isolationism and prevent destructive over-commitment such as the war in Iraq. But it is unclear what this approach means for US-China trade policy and relations.
Nonetheless, if Biden puts this report and its implications at the center of his foreign policy, we can predict five areas of change.
First, there will be a more integrated foreign policy approach. The Biden administration will view trade policy with China as one part of the overall US-China relationship, taking into account the trade policy implications for US prosperity at large.
Second, there will be an open but pragmatic approach to international cooperation on trade. Biden may be more agreeable than Trump to signing new trade agreements and deepening old ones. However, he would not endorse such an agreement simply to strengthen the US leadership, but would prioritize the economic impact of any potential agreement on middle-class voters.
Third, there will be strong demands that each new agreement contains more labor and environmental protections. Left-wing influence in the Democratic Party, along with the political power of the US rust belt, making it likely that such a provision will become increasingly important in trade agreements.
Fourth, there will be a greater emphasis on domestic policies related to trade. This may include an increased focus on building domestic industries, encouraging purchases of US products (already seen in the president executive orders), preventing outsourcing and relocation of production, and promoting labor participation.
Fifth, there will be a willingness to denounce China for human rights abuses and trade practices that it deems unfair, coupled with a reluctance to devote resources to confront China’s expansion. The United States will be reluctant to assert hegemony in the Asia Pacific if doing so requires a significant use of resources it deems best used domestically.
Overall, the Biden administration tends to establish a balanced, of course centric in relation to China and world trade. It will not return to the old paradigm of liberal internationalism and will not continue in a populist print. The United States will use both traditions to develop a version of limited internationalism that places US economic interests, broadly defined, at the center. Time will tell whether this new hybrid approach to US foreign policy will pay off.
Charles R Hankla is Associate Professor of Political Science at Georgia State University.