Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrives in Washington on Friday to meet with Trump. At the top of the agenda is the development of a bilateral trade agreement between the two countries. That became necessary when Trump pulled the United States out of the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) in one of his first actions as president.
To understand what is at stake for Americans—particularly those in the agricultural industry—Catherine Rampell provides some history about how the Obama administration approached negotiations with Japan during the eight years they worked on TPP.
[A]s part of the TPP talks, the U.S. trade team spent about a year negotiating one-on-one with Japan about agriculture, with the understanding that whatever concessions the United States won would be granted to the other TPP member countries as well…
Japan determined that the overall pact would be so valuable that it made the politically contentious choice of agreeing to our requests. Incidentally, the agricultural terms we’d negotiated in the TPP also became the template for a trade deal that Japan would separately negotiate with the European Union.
In other words, because Japan was interested in a trade deal that included countries representing almost 40 percent of global economy, they were willing to dramatically reduce tariffs on agricultural products with all of the countries involved.
After Trump nixed that deal for U.S. farmers by pulling out of TPP, the 11 other countries moved forward with the trade agreement and, as of December 30, 2018 when it went into effect, they are now benefiting from the lower tariffs the Obama administration negotiated with Japan on agricultural products. As Rampell indicated, TPP became the template for the trade deal between Japan and the EU, which went into effect a month later. Agricultural products that are exported to Japan from all of those countries now enjoy a significant advantage compared to the U.S. because of Donald Trump.
As you would expect, rather than acknowledging that their actions put American farmers at a disadvantage and seeking to repair the damage, U.S. ambassador William Hagerty scolded Japan for implementing the other trade agreements before addressing a bilateral trade deal with us. Darci Vetter, chief agricultural negotiator in the office of the U.S. Trade Representative under Obama, captured things well by saying, “Frankly, you can’t leave someone at the altar and then be surprised or upset that they’ve moved on.”
We’ll have to wait and see whether the Trump administration can negotiate a bilateral trade agreement with Japan under those circumstances. But this example points to the reasons his foreign policy has been such a failure. Trump’s approach has often been described as transactional—meaning that he focuses on a personal relationship with foreign leaders. That gets to half of the problem, with its emphasis on bilateral agreements.
As we know from watching this president, his standard approach to relationships is to establish dominance and require submission to his demands via threats. When it comes to dealing with Japan, the tool he is likely to use is to threaten tariffs on cars imported from that country, which will result in Americans having to pay more for their automobiles. When dealing with weaker countries, threats can sometimes appear to work in the short term. But they eventually strain trust and diminish the possibility of cooperation.
The alternative was demonstrated by the Obama administration in recognizing that Japan wanted access to a host of foreign markets. By working with those other markets, they were able to get Japan to agree to lower tariffs via cooperation rather than threats. That is what it means to wield the power of partnerships.
We can see the same distinction in how the two administrations have approached Iran. Obama was able to impose global sanctions on that country via partnerships that included not only Europe, but Russia and China as well. While bilateral sanctions had failed to bring Iran to the negotiating table on their development of nuclear weapons, a global partnership was successful. Just as with TPP, when Trump pulled the U.S. out of the agreement that was eventually reached in response to those sanctions, the remaining countries carried on without us, further isolating the U.S. At this point, the president is once again relying on unilateral sanctions and threats.
Because Trump doesn’t care about climate change, he isn’t interested in using threats to develop bilateral agreements on that issue after pulling us out of the Paris Climate Accord. In addition to his aversion to anything Obama accomplished, the prospect of a global partnership that doesn’t offer him an opportunity to dominate led him to further isolate this country from the rest of the globe.
All three of these examples demonstrate why Trump’s foreign policy will be a disaster in the long run, further isolating this country and damaging American workers.