President Donald Trump’s isolationist, protectionist, America First stance isn’t having the effect he desired, to judge by events surrounding last week’s G-20 summit in Germany. Trump has long boasted that he could blow up trade deals and other agreements with other countries and get the better of them in a second go-round.
That’s not what’s happening. In a public rebuke of Trump’s protectionism, Japan and the European Union, on the eve of last week’s summit, announced the framework for a pact that would cover 40 percent of global trade. It would create a powerful trading bloc roughly equal to the North American Free Trade Agreement, which joined the U.S., Mexican and Canadian economies. Other nations are also busy finding strategic workarounds to a more isolationist U.S. Each time they do so, American clout diminishes a bit.
Trump may have been surprised when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said his country and the E.U. would be more than willing to pick up the mantle of free trade he had discarded. If successful, their agreement could soon make American products less competitive in one of the most lucrative markets outside the U.S. Ironically, Trump may have hurried that agreement along. Abe had put it on the back burner for several years while he worked on the ill-fated Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump scuttled soon after taking office. A frustrated Abe turned to a more willing partner.
Trump’s vision of America appears frozen in a time when the U.S. could dictate terms, when every other nation was a junior partner. Other nations may find it’s easier to do without the U.S. than they might have thought, whether the issue is trade or climate change or global security
China and Russia, also just before the summit, unveiled a $10 billion joint economic investment fund that, not incidentally, will soften the impact of U.S. economic sanctions against Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin further used the G-20 summit to publicly reaffirm his commitment to the Paris climate accord. China is now working actively with the E.U. to save the climate agreement in the face of U.S. withdrawal.
Even Canada is looking for options. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has criticized his U.S. counterpart for “turning inward,” heads to Rhode Island this month as the keynote speaker to the National Governors Association. There he will have ample face time with the state leaders and a chance to remind them that his country is the top trading partner for most of their states. Canada also recently struck a formal trade agreement with the E.U. that would eliminate 98 percent of the tariffs between the two entities, reducing its heavy dependence on U.S. trade.
Trump’s instinct to get a better deal is understandable and, in some instances, perhaps necessary. There can be improvements to the aging NAFTA agreement, which will enter renegotiations next month. But his reception at the G-20, where 19 nations lined up against him on trade and climate issues, amply demonstrated that he should recalibrate his approach. No nation can be an island these days. A global, digital, interconnected economy has wiped away too many geographic barriers for that.
Other nations have prospered in part because of the stability made possible by decades of strong U.S. leadership. That’s good. More prosperous allies make for stronger partners. But it also is subtly shifting the balance of power — a process that, admittedly, predates Trump. It is up to this administration to navigate this changing landscape, before America gets left behind.