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One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received about analytical and opinion writing is “Let your adversaries hang themselves with their own words.” So on the eve of Thanksgiving, 2017, I’m especially grateful to Bill Emmott, the former editor-in-chief of The Economist magazine, for making clear why President Trump and other nationalist critics of U.S. trade policy have been exactly right in slamming as a huge mistake America’s decision to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) – the linchpin of the global trade order for the past two-plus decades.

Writing on the Project-Syndicate.org website, Emmott reports that the Trump administration has embarked on a campaign to cripple the operations of the WTO, which went into business at the beginning of 1995 and which possesses unprecedented internationally recognized authority not only to develop rules for governing many kinds of global commerce, but for enforcing them.

As with other efforts to subject countries to some legal-type checks, the ostensible purpose of the WTO was to remove power from the picture when countries negotiated trade arrangements, and especially when they dealt with the disputes over such arrangements that inevitably arise.

Many powerful critiques of the WTO have been advanced by trade policy critics across the spectrum, but I’ve always viewed two interlocking objections as supremely convincing. First, despite its lofty stated legalistic objectives, the WTO has always been as quintessentially a political organization as other international organizations, like the United Nations. Second, the politics of the WTO has always been decidedly anti-American – for the overwhelming majority of its members depended heavily on amassing big trade surpluses with the United States in order to generate adequate growth for themselves.

So Washington’s decision (backed by Democratic and Republican leaders alike of course) to spearhead the WTO’s creation and become a founding member achieved none of its promised major advantages for the U.S. economy (an impartial forum for handling trade disputes), and saddled the country with all of the major drawbacks of such a system (nullifying most of its ability to use its immense market power to resolve most of these disagreements favorably).

And wouldn’t you know it? Emmott, whose former publication was created in the mid-19th century precisely to advocate for so-called free trade principles, strongly agrees! As he wrote in an essay yesterday:

With the WTO essentially out of the picture, the US will launch a new initiative to strike bilateral deals on trade rules – an approach that Trump advocated in his APEC [Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum] speech. Given that the US remains a vital market for most exporters, such an initiative will have clout.”

Even Emmott’s suggestion that these U.S. moves will fail unwittingly confirms the case that American leverage will secure the best possible outcomes for Americans. “Asian and European countries,” he writes, “should be preparing for the worst by negotiating their own trade agreements with one another to preempt American mercantilism. After all, taking the initiative to boost trade and other commercial contacts is the best way to resist a trade war.”

What the author apparently misses is that the United States is such “a vital market for most exporters” precisely because the latter countries simply don’t believe in opening their economies to others’ goods and services any more than is absolutely necessary. It’s entirely possible that the dramatically altered circumstances created by new unilateralist U.S. policies could imbue these mercantile economies with some free trade religion. But decades- – and in some cases, centuries- – old approaches generally don’t die so easily. Moreover, if such market-opening did indeed take place, and it could be adequately monitored and enforced, why wouldn’t the United States want to take part?

Until then, however, it would make the most possible sense for Washington to proceed along the unilateralist lines Emmott dreads. For thanks in large measure to its transparent political system and strong rule-of-law tradition, the reciprocal market-opening promises offered by America in bilateral trade diplomacy will be much more credible than those made by Japan, or China, or Germany, or other major protectionist economies. The days of selling the United States much more than they buy from it would come to an end. But genuinely intelligent foreign leaders will recognize that receiving a half a loaf from dealing with Washington on this new basis is the best trade bet they can realistically hope for.

As for countries that stubbornly refuse (possibly egged on by free trade zealots like Emmott) the United States – with its considerable present degree of self-sufficiency and matchless potential for much more – will be more than capable of shrugging its shoulders and moving on.

Incidentally, as RealityChek regulars may recall, Emmott isn’t the first globalization cheerleader unintentionally to reveal that the WTO was a pig in a poke for U.S. economic interests, and indeed was created expressly to neuter American power. Chad Bown, a former World Bank economist now with the Offshoring Lobby-funded Peterson Institute for International Economics, handed trade policy critics, and the American people, a similar gift just last August.