As a result, most U.S. trade diplomacy in an America First administration would consist not of American diplomats negotiating at length with foreign governments to draw up detailed new rules of trade either for existing agreements or new deals. Nor would it entail seeking more equitable trade relationships by bringing many more cases to the WTO.
Instead, it would consist of the United States withdrawing from the WTO, unilaterally determining the requirements that foreign governments will need to meet to ensure their producers certain levels of access to the American market, and then announcing those requirements. Especially important would be stipulations that, in many cases, foreign companies or domestic firms that produce offshore wishing to sell their products in the United States make all of part of them in the United States, or transfer critical technologies to American partners.
Trade partners would of course be free to offer counterproposals, but Washington would have the final say. The United States would also serve as judge, jury and appeals court for the disputes that inevitably would arise—including those resulting from its own enterprises’ complaints about foreign practices in the U.S. market or overseas markets.
Although strong cases can be made that the substance of a genuine America First foreign policy will more effectively protect and advance U.S. interests, and that public opinion is receptive, the Trump experience indicates that a big question still hangs over its future prospects: can American politics produce leaders able to engineer the needed changes?
Of course, American elections have brought to power any number of mainstream politicians, and through them any number of policy operatives, skilled, experienced, and knowledgeable enough to maintain the status quo competently and even effect important reforms. And as shown by Trump’s election, the White House can be won by an outsider with avowedly disruptive ambitions who is largely unfamiliar with Washington’s formal and informal levers of power (and lacking an advisory corps large and savvy enough to at least partly tame the federal bureaucracy).
But what is still unknown is whether a leader unconventional enough to develop or support truly innovative foreign policy ideas can rise to the top through the current political system and all of its stay-the-course influences and incentives. Equally uncertain—can the world outside mainstream political and policy circles produce a leader both willing to think and act outside establishment boxes, yet versed enough in its ways to achieve transformational goals? And perhaps most important of all: can the nation produce such a leader before war or depression make overhaul unavoidable?
The answers may determine the future not only of America’s foreign policy, but its broader prospects as well.
Alan Tonelson is the Founder of RealityChek, a blog on economics and national security, and a columnist for IndustryToday.com. In 2016, he advised both the Trump and Sanders campaigns on international trade issues.