Trump and Reagan: Whose Trade Policy Wins?

Professor Michael R. Czinkota

After signing the United States – Mexico – Canada agreement and ‘Phase 1’ of the China trade deal, President Trump has now moved his international trade focus onto some of the closest U.S. allies, the European Union. During the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, he proposed tariffs on auto imports from the EU, on wines, cheese, yogurt, and handbags from France, and on whiskeys from Ireland. 

The international trade policy efforts by Trump are remindful of President Ronald Reagan. Both presidents are stars of the Republican party and very frowned upon by Democrats. Trump and Reagan were focused on reducing the U.S. trade deficit and increasing the global competitiveness of the U.S. industry.  A look onto the past will provide a better understanding on whether Trump’s bold approach to trade policy wins over Reagan’s more sedate procedures. 

The 1980s:

The U.S. trade deficit was significant and growing precipitously. In the early Reagan years, it averaged $30 billion and reached $123 billion by late 1984. 

Reagan’s preference for free trade contributed to the Administration’s initial lassitude on this deficit. Gradually, however, calls for protectionism emerged. Examples were the U.S. automotive and footwear industries. Even clothespins were considered by some worthy of protection against foreign imports. In response, Reagan signed the Trade and Tariff Act of 1984 to reduce unfair global trade practices. There were also additional efforts to increase exports. Reagan announced bilateral trade agreements with Israel, and later with Canada. New rules were implemented to ease U.S. trade with China, yet the trade deficit continued to rise and reached $148 billion in 1985. 

The final, major trade legislation of the Reagan administration was the Omnibus and Competitiveness Act of 1988, which authorized negotiations in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and required the U.S. Trade Representative to take aggressive corrective action against countries that had large trade surpluses with the U.S.

The end of the Reagan years coincided with a sharp rise in globalization forces. The emergence of new technologies in transportation, communications, and information dramatically lowered the costs of international business and marked a rise of worldwide competition.

Trade Policy After 2016

Similar to Reagan, Trump has focused on fair trade. Some consider his approach more aggressive and populist. Trump ignited a new fervor in international trade policy. His tariffs have been imposed rapidly and often with little debate. His style has managed to concentrate the focus of trade partners. The constantly hammered message says: trade is now important to the U.S. 

Trump has argued consistently that the U.S. has been ignored or treated unfairly for decades in trade-related matters. He has pushed an “America First” policy with no more ongoing global support from the U.S. He renegotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), eliminated the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), as well as criticized major companies such as Carrier, Ford, and Mondelez – for selecting their production location without patriotic consideration. 

Trump tariffs of 2018 covered about $304 billion of imports into the U.S. Together with other forms of protection, they have had limited effects on the U.S. trade deficit. Some countries filed formal complaints against the U.S. with the World Trade Organization (WTO).  Trump responded by threatening corrective measures against the WTO if U.S. interests were not considered.

Comparing Reagan and Trump

Reagan’s policy endeavors were initially quite modest but became more assertive over time. Efforts sought to reduce the growing U.S. trade deficit with Japan and bolster American industrial exports. Trump’s trade deficit is significantly larger both in real and relative terms. Trump’s policy uses more harsh, aggressive, and clear approaches stating his expectations and demands, as well as reflecting the consequences of nonconformity.

Efforts by both the Reagan and Trump administrations to “level the playing field” have met with insufficient success. The powers of China and emerging markets are rising. American influence around the world should not become precarious. The time is right for further enlightened action on international trade. Countries need to understand the drivers of U.S. policy, which requires embracement of new approaches, new linkages, and new leadership directions for an entirely new era. 

Professor Michael Czinkota teaches international marketing and business at Georgetown University. His most recent book is In Search for the Soul of International Business, 2019. He served as Deputy Assistant Secretary in the U.S. Department of Commerce in the Reagan and Bush Administrations. 

Key Words: United States – Mexico – Canada agreement, President Trump, President Ronald Reagan, Trump tariffs, World Economic Forum, World Trade Organization (WTO), Omnibus and Competitiveness Act of 1988, General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and international trade policy

Leave a Reply