In the rhythm of U.S. foreign policymaking, the first few weeks of every year are a dramatic pause. Experts in the field make preparations in early January as they await the president's State of the Union address, slated this year for Jan. 30, somewhat later than usual. After a spate of "year-in-review" articles, followed by "what-to-expect" pieces, the experts turn their attention to the annual speech to see what course of action the White House plans to take.
The current president, however, is different from his predecessors. The leading publications and established institutions specializing in international affairs may be less useful sources for gleaning the direction of U.S. foreign policy this year than they have been in the past. Rather, the primacy of domestic policy will dictate the course of new foreign policy initiatives. Now that Congress has passed a new, far-reaching tax bill — leaving few easy domestic legislative projects ahead — the best way for President Donald Trump to demonstrate that he is keeping his promises to his constituency is to seize on a domestic issue that translates into foreign policy: trade.
This is the year in which Trump must move forward with his trade agenda; there simply is no alternative. He can no longer just talk about his opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, to multilateral trade agreements, or, indeed, to what he considers unfair bilateral trade agreements, such as the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement. If he wants to keep his word — and it's clear that he means what he says — the president will have to take steps to correct what he sees as a negative environment for trade.
In a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, former World Bank President Robert Zoellick wrote that it may be easy for Trump to disavow previous agreements, but it will be awfully hard to negotiate new ones. The reason, Zoellick maintains, is that the president doesn't really want to create new mechanisms to promote free trade but rather new structures that will promote managed trade. Zoellick believes Trump is focused on eliminating or at least reducing trade deficits. Instead of following the pattern of previous administrations, which worked to eliminate barriers to U.S. exports to enable the United States to exercise its strength on a level playing field abroad, the current administration wants to prevent what it sees as unfair practices by foreigners accessing the U.S. market. Levying tariffs on imported steel is one such area of focus.
It's likely, then, that the State of the Union address, in which the president will try to reach out to his supporters while demonstrating the strength of American resolve in seeking fair agreements, may emphasize messages that aim domestically but land abroad. Though he may calculate that other countries need the United States more than the United States needs them, this imbalance isn't his primary point. The president is underscoring that the promises he made during his 2016 campaign are promises to Americans, not foreigners.
The same is true for U.S. trade partners near and far. The Canadian and Mexican governments, for example, agree on the need to update NAFTA, but at some point they will need to demonstrate to their domestic constituencies that there are mutual benefits to such a project. But all eyes will be on trade relations with China.
If the president blocks Chinese imports with new tariffs designed to combat China's allegedly unfair trade practices, he may indeed be keeping his promise to American industries. There's little doubt, though, that such a move would, in turn, have an effect on U.S.-Chinese relations. Trump enjoyed a warm reception when he visited Beijing in November; nevertheless, the Chinese government understands the implications of "America First" and is prepared for the policies that will follow. China's leaders may wonder about U.S. trade policy and find that, in fact, their country is merely the collateral damage of a domestic debate about the future of American industry. Other countries in Asia, by contrast, are simply holding their breath as they wait to see what the new U.S. trade regime looks like.
Trade will be one of the most important and most contentious elements of the State of the Union address. Viewers can expect a new vision for trade and new stance toward China, the ramifications of which could reach far and wide. More broadly, pundits may question whether the president is challenging the traditional rules-based trading system. Not really. His does not seem to be a systematic world, but rather one in which action — and winning — is the bottom line.