This presidential election will offer two paths for foreign and economic policy with two very different outcomes, said a panel of UW-Madison professors.

International political economy Prof. Mark Copelovitch told an alumni association virtual event this election is fundamentally different from other presidential elections.

While another term for Donald Trump would likely lead to more unilateral foreign affairs decisions from his administration, the other path would likely lead to more multilateral decisions involving more U.S. allies and trade partners, strengthening the global economy alongside the U.S. economy, the panel argued.

“I think that’s different than any election we’ve had previously where there were specific disagreements about the Paris Agreement or this agreement or that agreement, but not the sort of fundamental orientation,” Copelovitch said.

According to the panel, the Trump administration’s unilateral foreign policy and trade decisions have created uncertainty in relations with foreign countries and less international cooperation, highlighting two paths to economic recovery once a coronavirus cure is found.

Tana Johnson, an associate professor of public affairs and political science, said the Trump administration will likely continue to make bold foreign policy moves in the coming weeks. She said presidents historically have had more ability to influence foreign policy than domestic policy, and the Trump administration is likely looking for some quick wins to lean on for its campaign.

“What we find is that international affairs actually allows incumbent presidents to do things when domestic policy is stalled,” Johnson said. “In the Trump administration right now, we’re seeing that there might not be the movement that the administration would like in domestic policymaking.”

Trump has the opportunity for more influence in international policy than domestic policy because he wouldn’t have to deal as heavily with Congress, unlike with domestic affairs. Trump recently made several unilateral foreign policy moves with Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Russia. Johnson expects these unilateral moves to continue.

Johnson knocked Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement, arguing it made many European nations uncertain about the trustworthiness of U.S. treaties and agreements.

Copelovitch said that a return to the agreement would allow the U.S. to have a huge influence on how other countries deal with the environment if it were part of the deal.

“The U.S., most of the time, gets most of what it wants in any international organization,” he added.

He said the current administration’s foreign relations with countries like North Korea and Iran, both considered potential nuclear weapons threats by the international community, mostly only benefited Trump himself rather than U.S. foreign allies. He also knocked the tariffs on foreign allies, such as South Korea and Canada, which he said created tension and distrust.

“The real policy solutions don’t actually involve tariffs because they’re not going to fix the trade deficit,” Copelovitch said of China. “They involve large-scale public investment with the dollar-denominated international flows that are available to us because of the dollar’s central role in the economy.”

Macroeconomics and international trade Prof. Menzie Chinn said even though the trade deficit with China has improved, many of the jobs Trump intended on returning to U.S. shores just ended up in other countries with low labor rates like neighboring Vietnam. He cited the overall U.S. trade deficit has not improved since 2017.

In fact, Chinn deemed the trade war with China a failure overall.

“One possible success, you might have said, is the trade deficit with China has shrunk since 2017 began. So, it’s been an ineffectual policy stance,” he said.

Returning to multilateral policies such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership would likely help keep Chinese state capitalism in check, Chinn said.

The professors said a possible Biden administration would likely broaden international relations and be more multilateral in its foreign policy decision-making process. Improving foreign relations and international trade would promote international cooperation to recover from the coronavirus pandemic, they added.

Biden would likely revert to more foreign policies favored by other countries, focusing on reflecting previous administrations in countries like Iran and North Korea, according to political science Prof. Jon Pevehouse.

Pevehouse said Trump’s relationship with North Korea mostly served to legitimize the dictatorial state.

“The downside was a legitimation aspect of this whole sort of theater that was going on,” he said, referring to Trump’s posed photo with Supreme Leader of North Korea Kim Jong-Un. “And that’s exactly what the North Korean leadership wanted; they wanted to be seen as legitimate, as a country that needed to be dealt with on equal footing, and they got that.”

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