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Op-Ed: Would a President Trump Really Stomach a TPP?

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A recent article for Sourcing Journal looked at what might happen with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement if Donald Trump were to win the presidency, and in it, sources both surmised that Trump wouldn’t walk away from the TPP and that he might return to a more normal course of action—contrary to his inflammatory campaign commentary—once in office.

I believe those sources both seriously misunderstand Donald Trump.

What Trump is campaigning for

Trump hasn’t spent his life wanting to be president. For him, America has one big problem, which only he can solve: a Washington-based ruling elite that he believes is more interested in gaining approval from people like themselves than in pursuing the interests of Americans—especially when it comes to foreign affairs and trade deals.

And he thinks that ruling elite is incompetent at negotiating deals. He summarized his approach in a major speech on April 27: “We will no longer surrender this country, or its people, to the false song of globalism.”

He has repeatedly said the TPP is an excellent example of the elite messing up. He rejects pro-TPP arguments, foreign trade deals, he believes, don’t create American jobs. His opposition to them isn’t a cynical ploy to get elected president: it’s the reason he wants to be president.

I don’t care much for his convictions, but he’s a classic conviction politician.

How conviction politicians make choices

If Trump wins, it’s not “normal” politicians he’ll resemble, but other conviction politicians like Barack Obama or Margaret Thatcher—both of whom came to power determined to change how their countries were run.

On trade, Obama seemed to show the pattern of quietly dumping commitments mainstream pragmatic opinion disagreed with. While campaigning in 2008, he promised the then National Council of Textile Organizations (NCTO) president he’d “Use all diplomatic means at my disposal to induce China” to reform its currency, but within a few months of taking office, he was accepting the mainstream advice from the U.S. Treasury that China’s currency policies didn’t amount to currency manipulation.

Obama’s promises to the NCTO weren’t at the core of his campaign commitments, though. Healthcare reform was. The more the political mainstream told him that a major recession was a terrible time to increase government intervention in America’s healthcare system, the more it convinced Obama to stick to his reform goals.

Similarly, Thatcher, in spite of her “Iron Lady” reputation, gave way to pressure from the traditional mainstream on many issues. But when her economic policies were publicly attacked two years after taking office by 364 of Britain’s most distinguished economists, she could name just two supporting her. The economy began to improve almost the day that attack surfaced in the press—and she became increasingly reluctant to listen to anyone else afterward.

“Pragmatic” reassurances by established experts rarely convince conviction politicians to change their mind on issues close to their core convictions.

So what would President Trump do?

We don’t of course know whether Congress will have ratified the agreement by the time a President Trump would take office on Jan. 20, 2017.

TPP advocates still believe it will be submitted for ratification after the November election. I believe the procedures required to approve it are just too complex and time-consuming to squeeze into the two months, and that Congressional opinion is moving against it anyway. But even if it does go through, U.S. ratification isn’t complete until the president submits written notice to Congress that he’s checked that all the other 11 TPP partners have taken measures necessary to comply with all the promises in the deal.

Several TPP partners won’t ratify the deal until 2017, and the compliance notice has to come after they’ve all ratified it. So, if Trump wins the presidential election, it will have to come from him. And he’ll have no difficulty at all in finding something he’ll claim proves Vietnam or Japan isn’t honoring the spirit of the deal. Trump is as likely to issue the compliance notice essential for U.S. ratification of the TPP in its current form as the North Koreans are to hold a democratic election.

But what about a President Clinton? Or a President Cruz?

I’d say it’s inconceivable that Trump would allow TPP to be enacted on his watch, at least without substantial changes he could present as evidence Trump-style negotiating tactics work.

But most polls still say Hillary Clinton would beat Donald Trump—and no-one’s ever called her a conviction politician. She’s said she now opposes TPP and has laid out a number of areas where she wants change. So her election would mean renegotiation. As would Ted Cruz’s election if he gets the nomination and then beats Clinton.

On current form, the TPP agreement struck last October seems doomed, whoever wins. The only question seems to be how destructively the new president deals with what would, in effect, be a veto.

Nothing is certain in politics. But anyone believing the TPP will be around next January is very likely to be disappointed.

 

Mike Flanagan, CEO Clothesource. Clothesource offers consultancy on the world garment industry using the wide resources of The Clothesource Knowledge Base – the most comprehensive collection of information anywhere about sourcing for the apparel industry. He can be contacted at Flanagan@clothesource.net.

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