Donald Trump’s announcement that he was “suspending immigration” into the US to “protect jobs,” together with his administration’s earlier decision to withhold funding from the World Health Organization, is remarkable policy in the midst of a global pandemic. Both moves reflect deep, and longer-term, priorities of this administration, and the ramifications are potentially substantial for the global order and international trade.
The decision to temporarily halt the issuance of “green cards,” underlines one of the primary drivers for the Trump administration since inauguration. Trump was elected on a wave of nationalist sentiment – so virulent at the time that there were concerns about the rise of neo-fascism in the country. That nationalism holds antithetical the “globalists” who support free trade, supranational organizations and cross-border cooperation. The ideological bete noire in this mindset is the UN. An unaccountable, supranationalist organization that appears to be both too powerful and too ineffective, it has long been a target for the American right. The WHO, as a UN agency, is therefore fair game and Trump’s decision to withhold funding is unlikely to harm his popularity with his base.
But it does further weaken the US’s participation in multilateral organizations during a pandemic crisis that arguably requires international cooperation. It also makes the WHO more likely to be sympathetic to China’s viewpoints, particularly if Beijing chooses to step into the vacuum with funding and support.
Yet, this isolationist stance runs beyond objections to just the UN and extends to all forms of multilateral cooperation. It is no coincidence that one of the Trump administration’s first moves was to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade deal for Pacific rim nations. A series of steps followed: withdrawal from the climate change-focused Paris Agreement, ending US participation in the multilateral Iranian nuclear deal and, of course, a series of tariff and non-tariff measures erected to hamper free trade (even if they were intended to leverage other states into new trade deals as a result).
With the onset of the Covid-19 crisis, those voices in the Trump base stridently calling for more isolation feel they have been vindicated. The language often used to describe the virus – an invisible enemy that came from overseas – is paired with a sense that the best way to deal with the disease was to close America’s borders. Halting the flow of new immigrant residents would comport with the president’s position since the earliest days of his administration. America is better off and safer on its own.
More worrisome is the fact that these opinions are no longer solely held by the administration and its supporters. There is already significant bipartisan support for reducing reliance on overseas suppliers, particularly China, for items of strategic value. The fact that the president had to issue an executive order in March enabling him to compel companies into making basic items of personal protective equipment was a salutary moment for Washington. Other countries, too, are making use of this moment to attempt to diversify or nationalize supply lines – Japan has publicized a draft stimulus budget that would provide $2 billion to manufacturers who relocate their factories back to Japan.
Even policy areas where there seemed to be tentative progress toward freer trade and greater multilateral cooperation now seem likely to stall. The Sino-US trade war, which just in January seemed to be taking a hiatus with a phase one deal signed, is now likely to return with a vengeance. The chances of progress on a second phase have been described to me by former US officials as “non-existent” and Washington appears more intent on confrontation than cooperation.
A virus that was catalyzed by globalization, therefore, may well lead to a further retrenchment from that globalization. The irony, though, is that in the wake of this virus, with economies reeling from the worst downturn since the Great Depression 90 years ago, more trade rather than less could be the medicine required. Flexible, diverse and open economies have historically been better at managing crises, while trade has bolstered economic growth since the second half of the 20th century.
To aid the global recovery and strengthen the international order in the wake of the pandemic, a turn back toward trade deals and multilateral cooperation would be beneficial. That change in tack seems unlikely with the current US president. Even if there is a change as a result of the November election, there is a strong bipartisan current developing to restrict trade with China that might constrain whoever sits in the White House.
Christian Le Miere is the founder of Arcipel, a strategic advisory firm based in London. Previously he was a senior advisor to an entity in Abu Dhabi and a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. @c_lemiere