Donald Trump sounds like a protectionist. In his speech to the New York Economic Club last week, he condemned “these terrible trade deals,” by which he meant most of the significant free-trade pacts of the last generation as well as the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership.
“I’m going to renegotiate our disastrous trade deals, especially NAFTA,” he warned. “We are also going to keep America out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.”
So what’s a free trader like me to do? I’m a supporter of NAFTA as well as an advocate of TPP. American consumers have benefitted from an increased availability of products we use every day thanks to trade. As a farmer and rancher, I’ve benefitted from the ability to export my products around the world, especially to our NAFTA partners and Asian customers.
The top export market for U.S. beef last year was Japan, a potential TPP ally. Its people bought $1.28 billion in American products, according to the U.S. Meat Export Foundation. Next came the NAFTA nations of Mexico (which bought $1.1 billion) and Canada ($900 million), followed by Korea ($810 million), thanks to the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement.
My livelihood depends on these opportunities. I’ve spent 60 years in agriculture, starting with 4-H: buying, feeding, caring and showing my cattle at our county fair. I didn’t know a lot about trade back then, but I’ve learned over the years that the meat products from my efforts feed people at home and around the world.
Can Trump move beyond his anti-trade campaign rhetoric and embrace the existing trade agreements that have benefitted farmers, ranchers, and so many other Americans? That’s my hope, if he’s elected. President Barack Obama pulled it off and found his way back to support trade. As a presidential candidate, he sounded rather like Trump does now. As president, he became an ally of free traders.
So let’s imagine a best-case scenario.
I’m encouraged that even when Trump bashes NAFTA and TPP, he often acknowledges the importance of trade. “I’m a free trader,” he said when he announced his presidential candidacy last year. He has repeated the claim since: “I’m all for free trade,” he said in one of the debates.
The optimist in me wonders if he’s playing this like a businessman who knows how to make a deal.
A fundamental rule of negotiation is never to begin with your final offer. Instead, start with an ambitious offer that potential partners probably won’t accept. Then enter a process of give and take, in an effort to find a mutually agreeable compromise.
Think of it this way: Do you ever walk into a car dealership and just pay the sticker price? Of course not: You try to get the dealer to lower the cost. Under no circumstances do you tell salespeople the top-dollar price you’re willing to pay.
When candidate Trump talks about trade, perhaps he’s making an opening bid—but not a final offer. He’s trying to startle other countries into taking American interests more seriously.
“We will entirely renegotiate NAFTA,” said Trump last week. Then he called for “a deal that will either be good for us or will be terminated until a brand new and productive deal can be signed.”
I support NAFTA and would be happy to leave it untouched. But I certainly wouldn’t reject a good trade agreement that’s renegotiated into a better one. Trade agreements are meant to be ‘living documents’ after all.
I’m also in favor of TPP. I would be pleased to see Congress pass it and President Obama sign it before the year is over. If they don’t, however, and Trump becomes president, perhaps a Trump administration would extract a few new concessions from TPP countries and bring back a new and improved TPP.
This might be the only way to save a trade agreement that makes so much sense for the United States, both economically and as a matter of national security.
It comes down to business skill: “The problem with free trade is you need really talented people to negotiate for you,” said Trump last year. “If you don’t have people that know business…..free trade is terrible.”
At the New York Economic Club last week, Trump suggested a different way: “I will use our greatest business leaders and finest negotiators. And I know who you are. Many of you are in the room.”
Finally, I’m taking a look at Trump’s Agricultural Advisory Committee, whose members were announced last month. It includes a wide range of politicians and policy experts: including industry leaders like Mike McCloskey, CEO of one of America’s largest dairies; Marcus Rust, head of America’s second largest egg producer; and Kip Tom, a large agri-business operator. I know many of these individuals. The team has enormous expertise and experience in international trade and can help educate and illustrate best trade practices from their perspectives and experience.
These people wouldn’t lend their good names to a ruthless protectionist.
Maybe they haven’t.