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Biden’s Foreign Economic Policy: Crossbreed of Obama and Trump?

Christoph Scherrer

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1After overcoming its Maoist phase, the People's Republic of China became the extended workbench of the United States’ corporations. In the last decade, the formulation of a clever industrial and technology policy, a strategy aimed at maximum national sovereignty, and a population more than three times greater than that of the US, have helped China to become the decisive challenger to US economic supremacy.

2Accordingly, how to deal with China is hotly debated in the US. President Barack Obama tried to encircle China with a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This strategy failed domestically. President Donald Trump's aggressive America First strategy toward China has also not been successful. Instead of America First, will President Joe Biden return to Obama’s strategy?

3In the following, I will briefly contrast Obama's and Trump's China strategy before I analyze Biden's electoral coalition and its foreign economic interests, which then leads into a description of the contours of the new foreign economic policy, which I call the intersection of Obama and Trump.

Obama and Trump: Contrasting Strategies of Forcing China to Open Up More

4Since the end of World War II, US presidents have advocated liberalization of foreign trade at home, and among their trading partners, for geopolitical reasons and in the interests of internationally oriented capital (Scherrer, 1999). Following in this tradition, President Barack Obama also tried to push the Chinese government to open its markets to foreign investment and to refrain from a targeted industrial and technology policy. His chosen strategy was to encircle China. The plan was first to sign the TPP with 11 Pacific Rim countries, thereby strengthening intellectual property protections, allowing the unimpeded flow of data and finance, and limiting subsidies to state-owned corporations (TPP Text, chapters 10, 11, 17, and 18). Thereafter, strengthened by the TPP, a similar agreement with the European Union (EU), the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), should have been agreed. Together, TPP and TTIP would have provided a legal framework for a significant portion of global trade. Chinese exports would be at a disadvantage in this large market compared with competition within the TPP-TTIP zone. In order not to be permanently worse off, therefore, the Chinese government would have to give in to US demands. But this smart plan did not work out. Even the Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, withdrew her endorsement after narrowly defeating progressive Democratic challenger Bernie Sanders and the free-trade Republican presidential candidates famously lost to the TPP critic, Donald Trump.

5Although one of Trump’s first acts in office was the high-profile ripping up of the TPP, which was favored by the corporate world, his foreign trade agenda contained a clear commitment to the goals of internationally oriented capital (USTR, 2017). The difference to Obama's strategy was essentially a tactical one: confront China directly. The list of measures ranged from imposing punitive tariffs in successive steps to restricting Chinese direct investment and excluding Chinese telecommunications equipment suppliers (for a chronological overview of all measures, see Bown & Kolb, 2021).

6At the end of 2019, however, it became apparent that China was better able to weather the trade war. Trump's measures were not particularly popular with the public (Salvanto, 2019). Farms had to be compensated for their export losses through very large subsidies: about $46 billion in 2020 (Rappeport, 2020). Many business associations complained about higher import prices, import restrictions, and the cost of restructuring their supply chains. In the November 2018 congressional elections, there were already signs of disappointment among parts of the industrial workforce that had voted for Trump in 2016 in hopes of preserving industrial jobs. Thus, the president apparently decided that he did not want to jeopardize his reelection by further escalating the trade war. Accordingly, he agreed to a trade deal with China that fell far short of the goals he had set (Zakaria, 2020).

7Trump has been more successful with Mexico and Canada regarding renegotiation of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), renamed as the United States Mexico Canada Agreement (USMCA). While the assertion of US claims against these significantly weaker states is not surprising, the USMCA enjoyed strong support from Congress and the public (Saad, 2020). Two factors, in all possibility, contributed to this success. First, there was Trump's aggressive rhetoric toward Mexico, which meant that he did not have to fear criticism of the renegotiation from right-wing, xenophobic groups; second came the involvement of US unions, which have been the biggest critics of free trade agreements since the late 1960s. A clause reforming Mexican labor law, a sophisticated right of appeal in the event of labor law violations, and tightened rules of origin convinced most US unions, and thus also the Democratic congresspersons associated with them, to approve the treaty (Scherrer 2020).

President Biden's Electoral Coalition and Its Foreign Economic Interests

8The November 2020 congressional and presidential elections confirmed Thomas Ferguson's thesis that the outcome of US elections is closely correlated with the amount of campaign funds raised (Ferguson et al. 2019). The winner, Biden, raised more than $1.6 billion, while Trump raised just over $1 billion (OpenSecrets). At the same time, big donors prevented the Democratic Party from winning a majority in the Senate in the final weeks of the campaign (Ferguson et al. 2021). Although most capital groups campaigned for Biden, many wanted to ensure that the progressive wing of the Democratic Party would have little influence on President Biden's policies (Nasiripour & Parmar, 2020). This strategy has already paid off, with the minimum wage increase having to be removed from President Biden's big Corona aid package. The prospects of getting the trade union-strengthening bill – passed in the House of Representatives – approved by the Senate are dim (Fandos, 2021).

9For the first time since 2008, companies in the financial sector supported the Democratic candidate by a majority and a significant margin. The support of the electronics industry was even more clearly in favor of Biden. As expected, however, the total campaign contributions of unions and public sector workers did not match those of individual major industries. Close to 30 percent of total donations came from NGOs, particularly women's groups, environmental groups, anti-racism organizations, etc. (OpenSecrets). Thus, behind Biden's election victory is a cross-class electoral coalition of high finance and high-tech industry on the one hand, and unions and progressive organizations on the other.

10The foreign trade interests of high finance and high tech are relatively congruent; above all, they concern the free cross-border flow of data and finance and the strengthening of intellectual property protection. With regard to China, the financial groups are more interested in augmenting the liberalization of access to Chinese financial markets, while the high-tech companies want to see their existing access preserved and, at the same time, attain greater support in application-oriented research. Accordingly, several prominent business associations, including primarily high-tech associations, are calling on the Biden administration to suspend a Trump administration executive order that labels China a "foreign adversary" and allows the Commerce Department to ban imports of information and communications technology and services. This order gives the secretary nearly unfettered authority to block or reverse transactions, with affected parties having no mechanism to challenge any decision. The order could make US companies "unreliable business partners" (Inside U.S. Trade, 2021b). In an elaborate study, the US Chamber of Commerce warns of a decoupling of the two economies (US Chamber of Commerce, 2021). In other words, US companies do not want to jeopardize their access to labor and consumers in China, but at the same time they want to limit Chinese competition.

11The unions are primarily interested in preserving and expanding industrial jobs in the US and this is why they give priority to industrial strategy over trade policy. In their view, new trade agreements would have to contain strong rules of origin that reduce the incentive to relocate jobs, reliable rules for suspending trade privileges in the event of a sharp increase in imports, and labor rights clauses backed by sanctions (AFL-CIO 2017). Notably, environmental associations, such as the large Sierra Club, call for nations to be able to restrict imports into, and exports from, their national territory on a nondiscriminatory basis in pursuit of their environmental goals (Sierra Club, 2021). Many progressive associations, such as the consumer advocacy group, Public Citizen, call for the abolition of special jurisdictions in favor of corporations over states, and the so-called investor-state dispute settlements (Public Citizen, 2021).

12The interests of this Biden electoral coalition are thus not congruent, raising the question of which interests will prevail and which compromises will be made. In addition to the much larger electoral donations from the financial and high-tech sectors, major corporations devote considerable resources to their lobbying efforts (Blanga-Gubbay, 2021; Kim & Milner, 2020) and have excellent access to key individuals in Congress and the White House, clearly outnumbering unions and NGOs on the permanent advisory panels of the Office of Trade Representative. Their liberalization agenda is also supported by the leading liberal media, the business press, central think tanks, and economists. The former geopolitical alliance policy of the US, which will probably be revived after Trump, also favors the presidency's interest in liberalizing trade agreements rather than closing off the US’s own market (Scherrer, 1999).

13In addition to the financial resources that they raise for election campaigns, unions are important in providing volunteer campaigners for the Democratic Party in many states. The AFL-CIO has a great deal of expertise in trade issues, and the Trade Representative's Office has a trade union representative on one of its advisory boards. Nevertheless, they have not been able to prevent the major trade and investment agreements of recent decades. The big exception was the TPP, which they rejected just as Trump did. In other words, it was only because of the chauvinist forces that hold anti-union positions on all other policies that the TPP was prevented. The special circumstances of the successful inclusion of an elaborate labor rights clause in the USMCA have already been mentioned here.

14Given the stalemate between the parties in the Senate, it can be assumed that, based on the balance of power, the interests of unions, and those of environmental and consumer groups, will at best be reflected as subchapters in new trade agreements. However, it cannot be ruled out that there will be no major new trade and investment treaties ratified during President Biden's term, as the approval of a new negotiating mandate, negotiation of the respective agreement, and congressional ratification may drag on. The 2022 midterm elections will certainly affect this, depending on which party wins in the House and Senate.

Contours of the New Foreign Economic Policy: A Crossing of Obama and Trump

15The pronouncements from President Biden's foreign policy and foreign economic policy circle reveal a reflection of the trade policy experiences of both the Obama and Trump presidencies.

16The failure to ratify Obama’s TPP has led to the conclusion that negotiating new foreign trade agreements is not a priority (Inside U.S. Trade, 2021c). Biden’s Trade Representative Katherine Chi Tai’s policy speech on October 4, 2021, contained no mentioning of pursuing new trade agreements (Tai, 2021). Nevertheless, in case new agreements are sought, the new Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, stated: "We will fight for every American job and for the rights, protections, and interests of all American workers." (Blinken, 2021). The successful involvement of unions in the renegotiation of the USMCA by means of a sophisticated labor rights clause and tightened rules of origin is likely to serve as a model, especially since Trade Representative Katherine Tai, as former Chief Counsel for Trade Issues in the House of Representatives, was instrumental in bringing about the broad approval for the USMCA (Wang & Lynch, 2020).

17The failure of Trump's China strategy is attributed, among other things, to a lack of coordination with the traditionally allied capitalist democracies. In quasi-unison, the liberal foreign policy establishment, including its organic intellectuals, calls for a return to the "leadership" of the Western alliance (see, for example, the articles on US-China relations in Foreign Affairs). However, it should be made clear to the allies, according to Biden's foreign minister, that "real partnership means carrying burdens together" (Blinken, 2021). The US’s first steps toward its allies are already discernible, not only through the announced rejoining of the Paris Climate Agreement and the World Health Organization, but also through the moratorium in the eternal dispute with the EU over Airbus and Boeing subsidies (Swanson, 2021). At the end of September 2021, the inaugural US-EU Trade and Technology Council meeting in Pittsburgh set a clear focus on countering Chinese industrial policies (U.S.-EU TTC).

18Unlike the Obama strategy, however, China is not only to be encircled, but also directly confronted with liberalization demands. Already, in 2019, Biden's top Asia adviser, Kurt Campbell, and his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, wrote: "The era of engagement with China has come to an unceremonious close" (Campbell & Sullivan, 2019). Both Trade Representative Tai and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo promised, in their hearings before Congress, to hold China accountable under the Phase One agreement with the US and to work with the rest of the Biden administration to develop a long-term vision for how the US can best compete with Beijing (Fortnam, 2021; Inside U.S. Trade, 2021a). Accordingly, the Biden presidency has not yet rolled back measures imposed by Trump to keep the pressure on China.

19President Biden's first trade policy act was an executive order on government procurement on January 25, 2021, aimed at closing loopholes in the existing "Buy America" law and treating exemptions more strictly. The most consequential of these loopholes, known as "trade-pact waivers", is one that allows federal agencies to treat companies in dozens of countries as US suppliers if they have trade relations with the US, such as Japan (Scheiber, 2021).

20This was followed by the reimposition of a 10 percent tariff on aluminum imports from the United Arab Emirates, which Trump had repealed just before leaving office (Palmer, 2021). On February 24, 2021, Biden signed an executive order on supply chains. Within 100 days, supply chains for semiconductors, rare earths, pharmaceuticals, and large batteries are to be reviewed, and within a year, the industrial bases for six key sectors, such as defense, public health, ICT, etc., are to be analyzed. This will also involve working with allies (The White House, 2021). Government departments have committed funds to develop technologies to increase domestic production of key components (Rogers & Plumer, 2021).

21Traditionally, the Treasury Department puts the brakes on protectionist initiatives by other departments. Biden's Treasury Secretary, Janet Yellen, is known as a self-confessed free trader, but also for her interest in the welfare of wage earners (Scheiber, 2021). Accordingly, she seems to embody the new policy that combines the corporate agenda with greater attention to union interests.

Industrial and technology policy

22Other central pillars of the new China strategy are industrial and technology policy initiatives, as well as investments in US infrastructure, which Trump had announced in a big way but never realized. These are intended to enable the US to counter China from a position of strength (Campbell & Doshi, 2020).

23On March 31, 2021, Biden announced a $2.25 trillion infrastructure plan. The four-part, eight-year plan provides $620 billion for transportation, including a doubling of federal funding for mass transit. Another $650 billion is earmarked for quality-of-life initiatives such as clean water and high-speed broadband. A total of $580 billion is to strengthen manufacturing, $180 billion of which is to go to the largest non-defense research and development program ever. In addition, $400 billion is to be used to improve care for the elderly in response to the Covid-19 epidemic (Cook & Epstein, 2021).

24Biden's industrial policy ideas also resonate positively in principle with some Republican senators. The infrastructure bill drew the support of 19 Republican senators in August 2021 when it cleared the upper chamber. As early as July 2020, the then Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Jim Reisch (R-Idaho), introduced a bill, the "STRATEGIC Act", which included increased industrial policy efforts (Risch, 2020). Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida), known for his presidential ambitions, argued that the US must adopt a "21st-century pro-American industrial policy" of "common-good capitalism" because "market fundamentalists won’t win” a competition with China (quoted in Chhabra and others, 2020). Conservative China expert Elizabeth Economy appropriately observed: "China’s not going to adapt to the rules of the road as we structured them so we have to adapt" (quoted in Wadhams, 2021)

25At the end of the last legislative period, Congress passed a bipartisan bill (with 96 votes to four in the Senate) to promote semiconductor production in the US – the “Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors (CHIPS) for America” Act – as part of the defense budget appropriation. The electronics industry associations, together with the industry umbrella organizations, are now demanding that the Biden administration also provide the corresponding financial resources (SEMI, 2021).

26However, funding for Biden's infrastructure plan faces opposition not only from the Republican Party but also from some “moderate” Democratic senators. Biden's plan would raise corporate income tax from 21 percent to 28 percent and set a 21 percent minimum tax on global corporate profits (Cook & Epstein, 2021). The Information Technology Industry Council spokesman welcomed Biden's plan, but at the same time cautioned that it "should not come at the expense of weakening the United States’ internationally competitive tax policies" (Oxman, 2021). In other words, the highly profitable corporations are hoping for subsidies for research and reorganization of their supply chains, which they could also do on their own, and at the same time they want to maintain the low tax rates of the Trump era. It is likely that, under financialized capitalism, parts of these subsidies, just like the tax giveaways before them, will be used to buy back stock to drive up stock prices further (Lazonick & Shin, 2020).

27Thus, it is an irony of US-China relations that, despite criticism of Chinese state capitalism, there is growing bipartisan support in the US Congress for an industrial policy role for the government.

Reflection on trade policy decision-making

28International trade is a contentious policy issue. According to the Ricardian paradigm, trade liberalization is supposed to be a win-win situation, however, even mainstream international economics admits that wages and employment of low-skilled workers in rich countries are at risk when trade with low-wage countries is liberalized (Stolper-Samuelson theorem). Moreover, the benefits of trade can only be achieved through structural change, i.e., when the economy shifts from lower-value activities to higher-value activities. This shift will make workers in lower-value activities redundant. While the expectation is that these redundant workers will eventually move into higher-value activities, in many cases the higher-value jobs are filled by other, more educated individuals, and the low-skilled industrial workers end up in low-paying service jobs. The reason for trade policy’s controversy may not be economic logic but rather sentiment. The Ricardian concept of comparative advantage, i.e., that trade with low-wage countries is beneficial to high-wage countries, is counterintuitive to people not trained in economics. Moreover, widespread nationalism leads many to suspect that, by lowering their country’s own trade barriers, "foreigners" will fare better. As a result, trade liberalization has never really been popular in the US. However, by portraying more liberal trade policies as a matter of American leadership in the "free world", both Democratic and Republican administrations succeeded in lowering trade barriers during the Cold War period. Strong protectionist lobbies from business and labor unions were granted exemptions from liberalization to neutralize opposition to freer trade (Scherrer, 1999).

29After the Cold War, the Western leadership framework lost its persuasive power. In the struggle to ratify the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in the early 1990s, unions were supported by right-wing forces that harbored strong anti-Mexican prejudices. Although billionaire Ross Perot, who expressed these sentiments, failed in his presidential bid, NAFTA was passed only through deception. On one hand, the Clinton administration offered to negotiate side agreements for labor and environmental issues, with these side agreements turning out to be really side issues, i.e., their impact was less than marginal (Smith, 1993; Mayer, 1998: 205-218). On the other hand, the administration propped up the Mexican peso in order to show a favorable US-Mexican trade balance. Shortly after the ratification of NAFTA, the peso crashed (Edwards, 1997).

30Twenty years later, another billionaire turned presidential candidate gave voice to xenophobic sentiments against comprehensive trade liberalization with Pacific Rim countries in the form of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This time, he met with success. As noted earlier, Trump tried, out of an electoral calculus, to align voters opposed to liberal trade with the corporate agenda by presenting himself as a tough negotiator and by addressing some of organized labor's trade concerns. That worked with Mexico, but not with the much more powerful People's Republic of China. The Biden administration faces a similar challenge in terms of satisfying the trade interests of organized labor and the electorally important white male workers who left the Democratic Party because of its pro-trade stance, as well as the countervailing trade agenda of corporations which have enormous campaign resources, lobbying power, and media access. Its response to this challenge includes pro-worker rhetoric, an infrastructure and industrial policy of "rebuilding America", limiting the reversal of Trump's excessive tariff policies to small steps, and reestablishing relations with traditional allies for the purpose of forming a common front against the People's Republic of China.

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References

Electronic reference

Christoph Scherrer, Biden’s Foreign Economic Policy: Crossbreed of Obama and Trump?International Review of Public Policy [Online], 4:1 | 2022, Online since 01 April 2022, connection on 16 August 2022. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/irpp/2398; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/irpp.2398

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About the author

Christoph Scherrer

Universität Kassel, Germany
scherrer@uni-kassel.de

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Copyright

CC BY 4.0

Creative Commons - Attribution 4.0 International - CC BY 4.0

https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

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