This problem gets worse when writing about President Trump, however. So much happens at so frenetic a pace that events can change even as the keyboard stays warm. I have begun columns that had to be completely revised after I had finished a draft because in the hour or so it took to compose a draft, the story I was commenting on had three mini-news cycles. Or, to put it another way — I am pretty sure that between the time “The Toddler in Chief: What Donald Trump Teaches Us About the Modern Presidency” is locked down and the time it is released, Trump will be impeached and acquitted by the Senate.
I bring this up to note that this month, the Washington Quarterly published an article of mine, “Economic Statecraft in the Age of Trump.” My arguments were pretty straightforward: “First, the administration’s use of economic diplomacy to secure economic concessions has achieved surprisingly little, and there is no reason to expect a better record in the future. Second, the administration’s maximum pressure campaigns have succeeded at imposing costs on targets but have not led to better bargains. Third, the administration has hamstrung many of its efforts through basic errors of diplomacy. A statecraft gap is emerging between the United States and the other great powers.”
You can read the whole thing to find out how I arrived at those conclusions, but for the purposes of this column, I wanted to ask a different question: In the two months since that article was finished, has anything happened to alter my conclusions?
There have been two significant developments since the article came out. The first is a data point in Trump’s favor. As previously noted in this space, his mix of threats and bluster did lead to useful concessions at the Universal Postal Union. It is the greatest foreign economic policy accomplishment during the Trump presidency — and given the picayune sums involved, that is damning with faint praise.
This deal could change, but the Council on Foreign Relations’ Benn Steil looked at the numbers and came away... let’s say “underwhelmed":
The right way to evaluate China’s offer is to ask how much U.S. farmers would have exported to China in 2020 had Trump never started his trade war. In the graphic above, the dotted blue line projects such sales by assuming that, after 2017, China’s purchase volumes of each type of agricultural good would, absent Trump’s trade war, have continued growing at the rates seen since 2010. As the yellow marker highlights, China’s 2020 purchases would have exceeded $27 billion. That is, China would have bought over $7 billion more than what it is now offering. And this is a conservative estimate, given that the projections assume prices stay fixed at last year’s trade-war-depressed levels....In short, if Trump accepts what he is calling a “massive” deal with China, he will actually be leaving American farmers at least $7 billion worse off than they would have been without his policies. As for China’s hints of a far-off bonanza for U.S. farmers, these should be taken with a grain of soybean.
China remains the most important focus for Trump’s economic statecraft. It seems increasingly clear that these efforts will bear little fruit.
As it turns out, loudly threatening sanctions accomplishes little beyond raising the audience costs for the target, which will also make concessions smaller and less likely. President Trump’s repeated threats and climbdowns have made economic coercion more ineffective by eroding the credibility of U.S. threats.
Who knew? Pretty much everyone except Trump.