America First or lead from behind. That is the starkest contrast between President Trump and his predecessor.
And President Trump’s signature achievement could be reopening the question of free trade in general and trade with China in particular.
For decades, the leaders of both parties and all of academia told us free trade was an unalloyed good. The question was considered settled a long time ago, when Al Gore evoked the ghosts of Smoot and Hawley to debate NAFTA with Ross Perot on Larry King Live.
We didn’t need to think about this free trade nonsense any longer, the smart people told us. Everyone benefits in the long run, they said, forgetting John Maynard Keynes’ famous words: In the long run we are all dead.
Now, vast reaches of the American middle class are all but dead, on life support mechanisms of unsustainable debt.
China Has Broken Its Promises
A corollary of the axiomatic belief in free trade held that trade with China was wholly positive. China would grow more prosperous, it’s politics and economy would be akin to a suburb of Chicago if not Scandinavia, and a billion and a half new customers would buy everything we make.
Of course, none of that happened. Instead of China buying everything we make, they make everything we buy. Instead of China becoming more democratic, they are using their economic power to export techno-totalitarianism and spiritual and mental enslavement with Chinese characteristics.
Not only did Western corporations, including those headquartered in the United States, willingly fall in line, but the foreign policy mavens also continued to cling to the fiction that everything was OK with “constructive engagement.” As Vice President Joe Biden put it, “It is overwhelmingly in our interest that China prospers.”
President Trump said what no one else would say: China has not lived up to its promises, and no matter how many times we nicely have asked them to, they continue to cheat. And the World Trade Organization is incapable of stopping it.
While it is now widely accepted as conventional wisdom that China is not playing by the same rules as the West, the dead-enders just can’t give President Trump credit for the wake-up call that came not a moment too soon.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and others won’t admit President Trump’s tariffs have gotten results where no prior approach has. While they finally concede we have to take on China—they’ve seen the polls—they reflexively add, “but the president is going about it the wrong way.”
Asked what the “right way” is, they immediately respond, “We should work with our allies. That’s leadership.”
They evoke an image of the United States leading the brave cavalry astride a great steed. The reality is the horse they propose to ride into battle is that worn-out old nag known as “Lead From Behind.”
We tried the “multilateral” approach for 20 years. It’s called the World Trade Organization and it doesn’t work.
Real leadership is precisely not waiting for Brussels or Geneva or Paris or London to defend our national interest. Seventy-five years ago, London and Paris begged for our help. Now we are supposed to beg them before we act? President Trump says no.
But there is hard evidence waiting for “our allies” is a fool’s errand.
While China is holding Canadian citizens in prison, threatening Hong Kong protestors and imprisoning a million of its own citizens in concentration camps, German Chancellor Angela Merkel goes a-courting investment and business from Beijing’s red mandarins.
Meanwhile, back in Geneva, the European Union files a brief in China’s WTO case challenging the tariffs the United States imposed for intellectual property theft—and the EU takes China’s side!
With allies like that who needs enemies.
The truth is many of the countries we count as allies have benefited from Washington trade policy that gave them one-way access to the world’s largest consumer market (even as they blocked our access to their markets) in exchange for votes at the U.N. or basing rights in Mannheim.
A perfect example of the one-way street we’ve been living on is the Universal Postal Union.
This treaty has the U.S. Postal Service subsidize shipping costs of international parcels. As a result, it’s cheaper to ship a package from Shanghai to Kansas City than from Atlanta to Kansas City.
That’s right—we are footing the bill to give Chinese factories an advantage over our own while Jeff Bezos grows ever richer as he drops boxes of imports on consumers’ front porches across the land.
Of course, if Democrats were serious about “working with our allies to take on China” they could do it right now.
They could pass the USMCA, the United States, Mexico, Canada Agreement that replaces NAFTA.
Canada and Mexico are our closest allies, literally, as well as our two largest trading partners. And they are both under attack by China.
Beijing is holding Canadian citizens in prison and is threatening them with death. This is in retaliation for Canada’s arrest of a Huawei executive charged with breaking Iran sanctions.
Mexico has suffered from China’s mercantilist policies that have drained jobs and industries from North America to East Asia.
USMCA unites the North American continent to confront China’s economic aggression. China would be barred from signing a trade agreement with either Canada or Mexico without our approval.
So the next time you hear Speaker Pelosi or one of the 2020 Democrats say they want to work with our allies to take on China, just say: What are you waiting for?