[Column] At time when US needs friends, a Trump return threatens to push them away

Posted on : 2024-01-11 16:51 KST Modified on : 2024-01-11 16:51 KST
Under Trump’s argument that America is growing weaker, the US ought to be bolstering cooperation overseas, not abandoning that
Former US President Donald Trump campaigns in Newton, Iowa, on Jan. 6. (AFP/Yonhap)
Former US President Donald Trump campaigns in Newton, Iowa, on Jan. 6. (AFP/Yonhap)


By Kim Yang-hee, professor of economics at Daegu University

There are 65 elections scheduled to be held in 54 countries this year. These include a number of important elections in such countries as Taiwan, Russia, Ukraine, the UK and the EU, but the one that inevitably gets the most eyeballs is the US presidential election in November.

There has been considerable anxiety over analyses that Trump may make a comeback outside of the US since the beginning of the year, and not only because the frontrunner in the US’ presidential election is the man who told 30,573 lies during his previous term in office (2017-2020), who habitually stoops to all kinds of discrimination and bigotry, and who has been indicted on 91 criminal charges, including inciting an insurrection.

Rather, it’s because the radical changes in US policy resulting from a Trumpian return would confront the world with an unfathomable level of uncertainty. Trump objects to the Biden administration’s policies across the board — he’s opposed to globalism, interventionism, immigration, cultivation of friendly relationships overseas, and environmentalism.

The precarious security crisis in which wars are being waged simultaneously in Europe and the Middle East is connected to US-China relations, and the global economy continues to be weighed down by supply chain disruptions and inflation.

To be sure, Trump’s wild pledges to impose a 10% tariff on all imports, pass the Reciprocal Trade Act, and scrap the Inflation Reduction Act are unlikely to become a reality, just as in his first administration. It’s also doubtful whether Trump could achieve his anti-globalist agenda, let alone his vendetta against US cooperation with friendly countries.

Under Trump’s argument that America is growing weaker, the US ought to be bolstering cooperation overseas, not abandoning that.

Considering how hard the Biden administration has tried to set up a “trusted value chain” suitable for an era of economic security, a 2022 study by Sokrates Majune and Victor Stolzenburg speaks volumes.

According to their analysis of potential “bottleneck” products in major exporting countries based on market concentration, elasticity of substitution and value of export items over the past 20 years, the US’ share of such products has decreased sharply from 18.4% to 6.4%, and the Group of Seven countries’ share has decreased as well. In contrast, China’s share of bottlenecks has soared from 19.1% to 36.3%.

While the US is a classic example of a country that has neutralized interdependence through its outsized position in the global value chain, it has now lost that position to China. Cooperation with friendly countries is essential for counteracting that.

The reason the Biden administration has been more selective than Trump in its protectionist moves, focusing on multi-use, cross-cutting technologies such as semiconductors and artificial intelligence, isn’t because Biden is kinder or wiser, but because he has grokked the changing circumstances.

Given the expanded interdependence of the present, it would be pointless for the US to try to stop China on its own as long as its friends continue their relationships with China. An uncomfortable fact for the US is that the decrease in imports of cheap Chinese products over the past five years is because of an increase in imports of more expensive Chinese products via friendly countries such as Mexico, Singapore and Vietnam.

The US depended upon help from Japan and the Netherlands to regulate the export of semiconductor technology to China. The US also depended upon cooperation from friendly countries who were sure to profit if the US moved forward with decoupling with China on its own. That’s why the White House pressured South Korea to keep Samsung and SK Hynix from swooping in to take over Micron’s contracts when Micron, the US’ largest manufacturer of memory chips, was sanctioned by China.

Market criticism of Biden’s efforts to build a “trusted value chain” reflects the economic rationality that’s missing from excessive cooperation with friendly countries, but that’s no endorsement of Trump’s opposition to such cooperation. Furthermore, Biden’s strategy of building a protectionist front has provoked China to expand the BRICS group of emerging economies.

The “Global South” is also playing a bigger role, not necessarily by joining one side or the other, but by seeking ways to serve its own interests as the circumstances permit.

As this indicates, the world is moving toward the slow formation of protectionist blocs on various issues. It’s moving away from the unipolar era, when a single country was able to project force on its own, into a multipolar one. 

And yet Trump is staunchly opposed not only to globalism but also to the US’ cultivation of friendly relations around the world. That’s obviously a misstep based on his arrogance and ignorance about the world.

Given Trump’s tendency to regard friendly relations through a transactional lens, we may well ask what transactions he will demand of America’s friends. The Biden administration at least offered some carrots in partial recognition of friendly countries’ pushback to the CHIPS and Science Act and the Inflation Reduction Act. It wasn’t like the US had a choice, of course.

But what if Trump chose all sticks and no carrots?

Sad though it is, just as the US isn’t what it once was, neither are its friends. And the US is in desperate need of friends right now.

That relational dynamic is something Trump needs to confront before he starts throwing American friends under the bus.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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