Are Populism and Globalization Mutually Exclusive? How geopolitical trade partnerships could help protect America’s economic success
June 25, 2017
The US is currently leading the world with a new rise of populism centered around ‘putting America first’. Some have interpreted this as a desire to withdraw from the global stage. However, remaining active in global partnerships, treaties, and geopolitical trade may be the best way to insure America’s national security and economic success.
The media, including an article from the Economist , have analyzed the Trump administration’s potential for divergence from free trade and globalization. When first elected, Trump’s speech and rhetoric sounded very different from past presidents, but many scholars believed there was potential for his foreign policy actions to align with his predecessors. However, since his inauguration, Trump has halted the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and verbally suggested pulling out of the North American Free Trade Alliance (NAFTA). Trump’s fascination with tariffs and trade as collateral for bilateral political gains is likely to be a new generation of foreign policy and globalization, rather than an abandonment of the global stage.
Globalization is often associated with free trade because free trade predominantly affects private sector businesses, but trade agreements require vast political and international engagement. As a largely agricultural nation separated by the Atlantic from our European allies, the US has long relied on trade in order to survive. Thus, having strong trade relationships and easy access to foreign land, seas, and skies have historically been strong national interests. Political scholar, Walter Mead, holds an optimistic belief that all parties can win in an economic, transactional policy; hence “commerce can be a cause of peace” . In this quote, Mead shares the opinion that fair and free international trade creates strong relationships and builds co-dependence between nations, which lead to security and economic success for both nations. When private sectors are able to easily do business abroad, strong international connections and mutual benefits are developed. When this is the case, international business can influence international peace and security.
Trump has been very vocal about his opinions on foreign policy, although the opinions may not always seem cohesive. An article by Zakaria  claims that Trump wants to abandon the political encouragement of free trade and globalization that has existed in US foreign policy and instead focus on populist nationalism. The Economist’s  article focuses on Trump’s desire to pull back from international partnerships, many related to free trade. He has called China, “a currency manipulator”  and has questioned the benefits of NAFTA and TPP. At various times during his campaign, he has suggested tariffs on imported goods as high as 45% in order to encourage large firms to stay in the US. Trump has said that the US is being cheated more so than other countries by globalization . However, scholar, Jonathan Kirchner, disagrees with Trump and argues that globalization and free trade have increased America’s power . In fact, Kirchner argues that globalization benefits liberal political states (with easy access to communication and hypermedia) and capitalistic states (with open markets and trade participation), whereas globalization and free trade are most likely to hurt weak states and states with stricter regimes.
. Perhaps Kirchner would have predicted Trump’s rise to power, as both believe that “globalization is not inevitable or unavoidable” . Kirchner believes that America has long supported or at least actively not encroached the expansion of globalization, but if globalization is not inevitable, then perhaps it is rational for a president to question America’s long-standing position on globalization.However, in defense of Trump, the US also risks more by being a part of globalization and geopolitical trade partnerships than other smaller nations. Kirchner acknowledges this by stating globalization can decrease state autonomy, give new reason for international conflict, create more opportunities for terrorist groups to rise and spread their ideology, and create anti-American sentiment; all of which are increasingly important to a populist, nationalistic president
Although some believe that Trump is an isolated individual, Zakaria would argue that Trump is not unique in his beliefs and that the rise of far-right populism in the Western world reflects a growing trend of nationalism . Nationalism can refer to a nation’s desire to protect their domestic interest above all else. If this is the definition Trump abides by, then it might be in American’s best interest to stay engaged with the global community and free trade. Thus it could be a very nationalistic movement to stay invested in free trade partnerships, such as NAFTA. Perhaps some of Trump’s voters were persuaded by national sentiment and cultural agreement, but Trump’s actions thus far have not shown a disregard for political influence over the economy. He has actively spoken out against NAFTA, TPP, and other free trade partnerships, as well as spoken in favor of higher tariffs on imported goods and encouragement of companies to stay domestic. Trump is not abandoning the political emphasis on the economy and financial foreign policy, he is just shifting the opinion. Perhaps this shift simply represents a shift in national interest. However, there remains a focus on emphasizing the economy as both a domestic and foreign policy issue and using tariffs and trade as political lateral. Thus, perhaps the best way to put America first and protect its national security and economic success is to continue and improve the United States’ alliance with NAFTA.
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The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.
Additional Blog Posts
 “How Donald Trump Thinks about Trade”, The Economist, November 9, 2016, http://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21709921-americas-next-president-wants-pull-out-existing-trade-deals-and-put-future-ones
 Mead, Walter Russel. Special Providence: American Foreign Policy And How It Changed The World. Chapter 4, “The Serpent and the Dove: The Hamiltonian Way”, pp. 99-103. (New York: Routlegde/Century Foundation, 2002).
 “In defence of NAFTA”, The Economist, February 2, 2017, http://www.economist.com/news/finance-and-economics/21716033-nafta-has-been-disappointment-its-benefits-are-underappreciated-defence