President Trump’s just-announced National Security Strategy — summarized later below — interlocks with a subtle shift noticeable in his administration’s trade policy from bilateralism to plurilateralism. Although recent polls and special elections have been favorable to the anti-Trump Democrats, they have no positive program to run on in 2018 except “impeach Trump.” The investigation they hoped would prepare the way for that outcome — Special Counsel Mueller’s — is looking increasingly desperate in the face of massive conflict-of-interest revelations and the discrediting of FBI leadership.
TPP, other multilateral agreements to be rebranded as “plurilateral” to coordinate restraints on bad-actor China?
Up to now, Trump administration trade policy has been openly antagonistic to multilateral trade agreements such as NAFTA and the WTO, or the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP) negotiations inherited from the Obama administration. At the recent 11th Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO) held in Buenos Aires, US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer continued to boycott primary WTO functions and declarations. But for the first time he indicated that the US was interested in pursuing plurilateral agreements within the WTO. This is potentially a very important shift from the Trump administration’s previous insistence that it would only do bilateral deals. Not only did the major free-world economies indicate zero interest in this earlier administration proposal; they even proceeded to (1) move ahead on reviving the TPP on their own without the US and also (2) concluded a Japan-European Union (EU) Free Trade Agreement (see “The bad news: world leaving US behind in trade deals” in the Dec. 11th Founders Broadsheet).
Plurilateral agreements have the virtue that they’re not subject to a veto by other WTO members. Instead, they’re based on “a coalition of the willing,” our trade correspondent L.C. advises. Their limitation is that they’re usually limited to one sector at a time, such as the Government Procurement Agreement or the Information Technology Agreement. But with a little bit of semantic shape-shifting, the Trump administration could revive its participation in the TPP and T-TIP under face-saving new names and as [cough cough], plurilateral rather than multilateral agreements.
On some other issues that had not been brought to fruition after months of effort, smaller groups of countries suddenly got together to announce they will work on solutions (that is, without countries that had been obstructionist). These covered rules for three matters not now within the WTO’s purview: e-commerce (a key US interest), investment facilitation, and encouragement of MSMEs (micro-, small-, and medium-sized enterprises).
The initiatives were welcomed by the US, with Lighthizer, as noted below, praising the turn toward plurilateralism in his final comments. He put out separately a statement on e-commerce: “The US is pleased to partner with 70 WTO Members to initiate exploratory work on negotiations on electronic commerce issues in the WTO…. The launch of this initiative marks a significant milestone…. Initiatives like this among like-minded countries offer a positive way forward for the WTO in the future.”