Advice to the Next US President: Protectionism

Erecting trade barriers doesn't serve America’s — or the world’s — interests.

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Dear Mr. President,

Protectionism is hurting America, undermining its economic prosperity, political stability, and global influence. 

The trade wars initiated by this administration have imposed a tremendous cost on US companies, workers, and consumers. Undermining the WTO and disengaging from international cooperation have made it more difficult for the US to constrain China’s harmful practices such as infringement of intellectual property rights or rampant state subsidies. The protectionist policies have also contributed to a more fragile world order, eroding international stability and the US’s global influence.

Protectionist pressures are growing around the world as governments are trying to rebuild their shattered economies following Covid-19 lockdowns. The US must fight, not embrace, this trend. The US should prepare itself for a complete U-turn; It should abandon ill-informed and self-destructive trade wars and re-engage with the world, starting from its allies. The US needs to recommit to restoring economic openness, and become again a champion of free trade and cross-border investment.  It needs to also abandon technology wars in favor of a more strategic collaboration with other liberal democracies prepared to fight digital authoritarianism and defend free internet that advances rather than undermines democracy. And the US needs to work with its partners to find common solutions on difficult policy questions such as how to tax digital companies or whether to implement carbon tariffs to mitigate climate change. 

This global re-engagement presents an opportunity for the US to not just restore the old world order but rebuild it back better. Economic globalization was far from perfect and the WTO in need of a reform. Globalization generated much wealth but also unsustainable levels of inequality. The WTO rules proved inadequate in accommodating China’s state-driven economy without distortions in the global marketplace.   The US should now lead the world in an effort to build a more resilient, fair, and sustainable international economic order—with its allies and partners. Any other strategy would compromise the US fundamental national interest and its ability to influence the world for the better.

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