Hillary Clinton’s Unilateralist Trade Policy

Dan Drezner takes to NPR’s airwaves to comment on Hillary Clinton’s proposal to sunset free trade agreements every five years.

Her campaign website proudly declares that as president, Clinton would restore America’s standing in the world. Last week, however, she proposed that we reassess our trade agreements every five years and demand adjustments to them if necessary, starting with NAFTA.

This proposal makes me wonder if Senator Clinton understands the value-added of these free-trade agreements, or FTAs. The dirty secret is that most FTAs do not have large effects on the American economy, but they do yield foreign policy dividends. These agreements cement ties with key allies. They offer a guarantee to these countries that their relationship with the United States — and their access to American consumers — will not be disrupted. Compare the unease and mistrust that characterized Mexican-American relations prior to NAFTA with the past 15 years. The effect can be dramatic.

In short, trade agreements improve America’s standing in the world. But Senator Clinton’s proposal would strip these agreements of the very certainty that makes them attractive to our allies. How does Senator Clinton think our trading partners in the Middle East, Central America, and Pacific Rim will react to her proposal? How is this proposal any different from the unilateralism that Democrats have condemned for the past six years?

He’s right. What’s especially odd is that the one facet of Bill Clinton’s presidency that is almost universally praised was his steadfast — and politically courageous — support for free trade principles. It would be ironic, indeed, if his wife reversed that policy.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. yetanotherjohn says:

    Perhaps she does understand the impact of the free trade agreements, but her inner principles put getting her into power as a higher good than the good the FTS’s do.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    Humpty Dumpty. Free trade is anything you say it is.

  3. Steve Verdon says:

    Typical of a politician. Stick finger up in air. Note which way the (political) wind is blowing. Go in that direction.

    I can’t wait to hear how Bill will spin this one.

    “Well gee, I was kinda dumb of me to take such a steadfast and courageous stance. You know, now that I think about it, free trade might not be such a good idea. I’m proud of her.”

  4. Craig says:

    It wasn’t “universally praised,” it was “praised by everyone except trade unions and their supporters.” In other words, “the sort of people who help one win a Democratic primary.” Bill didn’t go into the primaries pushing free trade, and I suspect Hillary learned from that.

    It’s kind of like Mitt Romney saying that he wants to filter porn off of privately-owned computers while funding his campaign from money earned selling porn to Marriott guests. It pleases the base, whatever the facts.

    What does this say about what she’d actually do in office? I have no idea.

  5. Tano says:

    “Typical of a politician. Stick finger up in air. Note which way the (political) wind is blowing. Go in that direction.”

    And whats wrong with that? The underlying premise of democracy is that the people rule – that government policy is reflective of the will of the people. “Stick[ing] finger up in the air” – i.e. gauging what it is that the people want from their government, is precisely the attitude that a politician should have if they are to serve as an effective vehicle for translating the will of the people into governmental policy.

  6. CGHill says:

    Alas, “up in the air” is not anywhere near the most likely location of a politician’s finger.