Data show Trump has actually been less active than Obama on trade restrictions

Protected under Obama and Trump.
Protected under Obama and Trump.
Image: Reuters/Aaron Josefczyk
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Less than a year ago, Donald Trump was calling the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement “a horrible deal.” Earlier this week, his administration announced a revamped version of KORUS, as the the pact is known. Despite a few concessions on both sides, the deal is not expected to dramatically alter commercial relations between the two countries.

Trump seems to relish in trashing the conventions and norms that guide world trade. His provocative style is panic-inducing for globalization advocates and stock markets alike. But the president’s record so far shows he isn’t a particularly active protectionist.

On average, Trump has so far implemented fewer trade-damaging measures than his predecessor Barack Obama, according to data from Global Trade Alert. The database, which was started by the Centre for Economic Policy Research—a network of European researchers—tracks actions such as tariffs, export bans, and subsidies.

Many of Trump’s policies are also geared toward addressing the same problems the Obama administration previously tackled—including China’s steel overproduction, says Simon Evenett, an international trade professor at the University of St. Gallen who coordinates the database.

On that front, the statistics show that Obama was actually more prolific than Trump. The former president’s actions during his second term accounted for 28% of the world’s distortions on steel trade, compared to 21% during the Trump administration so far.

What’s not visible from the figures is the degree of harm inflicted on free trade by each leader. In Obama’s case, his administration may have applied pressure on China—but it still sought to keep an open dialogue and challenge the Asian country under the established channels of the World Trade Organization, or WTO, says Evenett.

Trump, in comparison, has opted for more bombastic and public attacks, he adds. In Evenett’s view, that approach is likely to make the Chinese less, not more inclined, to address US concerns. More broadly, it also weakens the system that underpins international commerce overall: if the US starts breaking the rules, others are bound to follow, WTO officials said after the Trump administration announced a series of unilateral tariffs against China last week.

Since then, Trump appears to be feeling less hostile towards China. In another example of the president toning down his initial barbs, his administration is reportedly in talks with the Chinese government to iron out their disagreements on trade.