President Trump's decision to rework trade deals is provoking criticism from those who fear that the United States is turning its back on free trade. These criticisms lack perspective.
As a representative from New Jersey, I generally voted in favor of free trade, which I considered an investment in peace and progress. But although I agreed with the general consensus in Congress that it was critical to integrate the U.S. into the global economy, I came to understand that getting there requires more than ideological veneration of international commerce.
One issue on which I voted as a congressman was the steel import ban. The resolution came as a reaction to the Clinton administration's reluctance to address the fact that our foreign competitors, such as Japan, Brazil, and Russia, were dumping steel into the U.S. at unfair prices. My colleagues and I generally shared the Clinton administration's support for free trade. But we also came to recognize that without "aggressive action" on steel imports, our trade partners would continue to undercut our steel industry with unfair practices. By expressing the sentiment of Congress that a one-year ban on imported steel might be an appropriate measure in this situation, both the Clinton administration and our allies saw that there would be a price to pay for abusing trade agreements with the United States.
Like those who tried to dismiss our resolution on the steel import ban as "protectionist," today's critics of Trump's trade strategy are missing the point. Trump is not shy about delivering fiery America First rhetoric. He was elected to do so, after all, by a political base that wants the president to stand up for domestic industries.
A careful look at Trump's record, however, suggests that he is hardly the protectionist caricature of his opponents. Trump's gripe is not with free trade per se, it is with bad deals in which our trade partners' protectionist actions go unaddressed.
Indeed, it is Trump, not the globalist talking heads in Washington, who has broken ground with his call for a free trade zone between the G-7 countries as well as a new U.S.-European Union trade relationship in which both sides "drop all tariffs, barriers, and subsidies."
What about Trump's actions?
He has threatened but not approved tariffs on South Korean steel and autos. What has resulted concretely is an agreement that keeps the core tenets of the two countries' free trade agreement intact, but extracts from South Korea promises to limit exports of trucks and cars into the U.S. and to provide greater access to its pharmaceutical market.
As with South Korea, Trump threatened but refrained from imposing auto tariffs on Europe during ongoing negotiations. The actual agreement the administration reached with the EU entailed precisely the opposite: a formal process to lower tariffs and slash red tape in fractious areas such as energy and soybean exports.
Time will tell whether Trump's strategy pays off, but the early signs are good. The administration's decision to slap duties on steel and aluminum invigorated much-needed talks on NAFTA, leading to the recent breakthrough with Mexico that updates but ultimately preserves the main substance of the original free trade pact.
Even more remarkable are indications that the administration is reviving the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. Under President Barack Obama, TPP had come to embody every excess of the one-sided trade deals the American people have come to resent. Trump, with the support of farm-state and rural legislators, has tamped down the populist backlash and is now positioned to strike a more sustainable deal.
As they did with the Republican Congress of the late 1990s, well-meaning free traders, caught up in the rhetoric, are missing the bigger picture. Trump's tariffs are not a gambit to destroy free trade. They are a tactic to shore up our trade partnerships in a changing world, and to do so without losing sight of the forgotten man he was elected to defend.