Fletcher Features

Former U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman Discusses International Trade

Before hosting a talk on United States trade practices at The Fletcher School this week, Professor John Burgess stopped to reflect on just how many products he consumes from various countries on a daily basis. “I realized that any simple act today is really evidence of the world of international trade that we live in,” he said.

Burgess, professor of practice and the executive director of Fletcher’s Master of Laws in International Law (LL.M.) program, noted his discovery while introducing former U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Michael Froman at a talk sponsored by Fletcher’s LL.M. program.

Professor John Burgess introduces Ambassador Michael Froman

On hand to discuss the world of international trade and the role the U.S. will play in it under the Trump administration, U.S. Trade Ambassador Froman took a moment to reflect on his connection to Fletcher. Addressing a packed crowd of students, faculty, and his own in-laws, Froman revealed that he once took a course at the school and has long regarded Professor Antonia Chayes as a dear friend and mentor.

In addition to his work as USTR in the Obama Administration, Froman also served as assistant to the former president and deputy national security advisor for international economic affairs. As such, Froman acknowledged that it would be easy for him to simply critique the work the Trump Administration has done in its first year, but said he’d rather discuss the work the new administration has set out to accomplish.

The trade expert kicked off the discussion by addressing President Trump’s “America first” strategy, explaining how it could impact our trade relationships around the world. “This means nothing more than ‘We will cooperate with other countries when it’s in our interest to do so, and we will conflict with other countries when it’s in our interest to do so,” he said.

As the Trump administration turns its focus more inward rather than expanding globally, Froman recognized that many people are worried that the idea of “America first” might realistically mean “America alone.” The Trump Administration denies these claims, but Froman says it’s too soon to tell what will happen. “How this plays out depends on how other countries respond to the Trump Administration’s strategy,” he said. “If they don’t respond to us in a positive way, then we are alone.”

Froman also touched upon President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) last year. Withdrawal from the global trade agreement will hurt the U.S. over time, Froman argued, because we’ve subsequently created a void in Asia that China is more than eager to fill.

As the U.S. has pulled back in its global trade efforts, it begs the question: Will other countries step forward to fill the void? Froman noted Japan’s efforts to lead the TPP discussions in the absence of U.S. involvement, and said “the rest of the world is moving on” without us after President Trump’s withdrawal from TPP. “We’ve gone from being the indispensable nation to the isolated nation, to what might become an irrelevant nation,” he said. Presently, the U.S. faces a series of trade conversations coming to a head, Froman explained, including those surrounding solar panels, aluminum, steel, and intellectual property rights.

Another major trade priority for the current administration is, of course, the renegotiation of NAFTA, and Froman said he’s hopeful that an agreement can be met on this front. Since much of what’s up for negotiation with NAFTA is actually similar to the text that exists in TPP, Froman said we can make up for lost ground if the NAFTA negotiations go through.

Froman ended on an optimistic note, reminding his audience that this is only one year of the Trump Administration’s term and it can be viewed as a “conditioning exercise” during which President Trump has sought to condition the rest of the world that he’s getting ready to change things up a bit. “The rest of the world is paying attention to what he’s doing and they want to accommodate him,” Froman explained. “The only thing the world fears more than U.S. leadership is U.S. withdrawal [from the global trading stage].”