On March 1, 2017, the Office of the United States Trade Representative (“USTR”) published a truncated version of the new Administration’s trade policy agenda for the coming year.  The agenda’s objectives are stated in broad terms, and the document suggests that a more detailed agenda will be forthcoming once the Senate confirms the Trump Administration’s new USTR.

Its objectives, however, present an initial outline of steps towards what White House Senior Adviser Steve Bannon recently characterized as a policy of “economic nationalism.”  At the Conservative Political Action Conference last month, Bannon explained that the President’s trade team is “rethinking how we’re [going to] reconstruct . . . our trade arrangements around the world.”

Notable aspects of the agenda include:

  • A reconsideration of the relationship between U.S. sovereignty and multilateral bodies like the World Trade Organization (“WTO”): “Resisting efforts by other countries . . . to advance interpretations that would weaken the rights and benefits of, or increase the obligations under, the various trade agreements to which the United States is a party.” The agenda emphasizes provisions in the WTO Dispute Settlement Understanding providing that dispute settlement findings would not add to obligations or diminish rights under the agreement.  It also notes that the WTO implementing legislation gives the President discretion to determine whether dispute settlement findings should be implemented as a matter of U.S. law.
  • A revival of unilateral U.S. action: “Strictly enforcing U.S. trade laws to prevent the U.S. market from being distorted by dumped and/or subsidized imports that harm domestic industries and workers.” The agenda includes references to possible self-initiation of antidumping and countervailing duty cases, as well as section 201 safeguards actions.  But the agenda goes further than imports, noting that “section 301can be a powerful lever to encourage foreign countries to adopt more market friendly policies.” Wilbur Ross, President Trump’s Secretary of Commerce, has emphasized maximizing U.S. leverage as one of world’s largest importers in efforts to expand opportunities in foreign markets.  Some of these unilateral actions could be used to create such leverage.
  • An objective explicitly linking trade with the health of the U.S. industrial base and U.S. national security preparedness: “Ensuring that United States trade policy contributes to the economic strength and manufacturing base necessary to maintain – and improve – our national security.” The national security implications of trade is a priority of National Trade Council director Peter Navarro, who has recently questioned what might happen if “it is not a benign ally buying up our companies, our technology, our farmland and our food supply chain, and ultimately controlling much of our defense industrial base.”  Considering trade as a potential national security threat could spur actions under provisions like Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 or the International Emergency Economic Powers Act.