By Milton Churche International Institute of Trade, University Of Adelaide
The Trump administration has called into question the value of trade agreements, including of the World Trade Organization (WTO), abused the concept of national security to justify openly trade protectionist actions, invoked “trade wars” as legitimate policy tools to advance national objectives, and moved in the direction of managed trade. Would a Biden presidency bring a decisive change in direction on US trade policy?
Biden’s identification with the legacy of the Barack Obama presidency is encouraging, notably its strong support for open trade and respect for international norms, and he promises a return to a US that is a more constructive international participant. But when it comes to Biden’s specific policy platforms the signs are less certain. There is no comprehensive trade policy platform. Nonetheless, one important indicator of the direction of a Biden presidency’s trade policy is his plan to rebuild US supply chains for critical goods. While the plan lacks a clearly explained justification, its formulation appears to rest on the same abuse of the national security concept used by Trump. Indeed, the Biden plan takes forward Trump trade advisor and China hawk Peter Navarro’s February 2020 call to use COVID-19 as the spur to re shore US supply chains. This policy brief uses Biden’s plan to rebuild US supply chains as a window into the mindsets shaping the Biden campaign, and the Democratic Party, framing of issues relevant to US trade policy in the lead up to the Presidential election. It is these mindsets which are likely to be most important in determining the shape of trade policy under a Biden presidency.
The brief identifies three key problems with the mindset revealed by Biden’s supply chain plan:
It fails to address the role of governments in providing public goods, and the importance of international cooperation in addressing common interests like responding to a global pandemic, and instead focuses on a domestically-reoriented market economy as the solution.
It continues the Trump administration’s abuse of the concept of national security to justify trade protectionist actions, and in a worrying feature would make working with “allies” – a term that appears to be used in the sense of strategic alliances – a key feature of a Biden administration’s engagement on trade.
It is framed around the myth that has been central to Trump’s trade policy: that the US, and particularly US manufacturing jobs, have been undermined by trade agreements and by other countries.