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Containers are loaded on a cargo ship in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, May 3, 2020. Containers are loaded on a cargo ship at the port in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, May 3, 2020 (AP photo by Hau Dinh).

The Backlash Against Globalized Trade Is Changing, Not Subsiding

Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021

Former U.S. President Donald Trump upended what was once a relatively staid global economic and trade system. Under the banner of “America First,” Trump launched a trade war with China and threatened America’s European allies with another, imposing steel and aluminum tariffs that have proven to be difficult to reverse. He also undermined the ability of the World Trade Organization to resolve global disputes by blocking key appointments. For all of this upheaval, Trump left office with only one clear-cut accomplishment: an updated NAFTA deal known officially as the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Act, or USMCA.

Even as Trump sowed chaos in America’s trade relationships, most of the world reinforced its commitment to trade liberalization. One of Trump’s first moves in office was to pull America out of the huge Pacific Rim trade deal known then as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But the remaining 11 members moved forward with the deal largely intact, renaming it the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP. While the TPP was originally designed to contain China, Beijing is now actually showing interest in joining the revamped bloc. Meanwhile, upon being sealed in late 2020, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership comprising 15 Asia-Pacific nations became the world’s largest trading bloc.

The European Union has also pushed ahead with agreements on several fronts, including beginning 2021 by improving its bilateral trade deal with Japan, which was already the largest in history when it came into force in 2019. The EU also finalized trade agreements with South America’s Mercosur trade bloc and Canada. Both deals have triggered backlashes within individual member states, though, and while the agreement with Canada, known as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, has been provisionally ratified, there is no guarantee either deal will ultimately be approved.

The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced its own challenges to the global trade order. In the scramble to secure vaccines and treatments, countries have reverted to the kind of nationalism Trump celebrated, including threatening to limit exports of vaccines and key treatments. That nationalist instinct will not be the former president’s only legacy.

In Washington, President Joe Biden’s administration has repudiated much of its predecessor’s policies—except in the arena of trade. Biden is facing no pressure from the left wing of the Democratic party to revert to the status quo on free trade, and he could open himself to criticism from critical Rust Belt voters if he reverses Trump’s trade agenda. As a result, the trade war with China looks set to continue, even though Trump’s negotiators made little headway on the unfair trade practices that spurred Washington to take on Beijing in the first place. Perhaps more surprisingly, Biden has yet to remove the aluminum and steel tariffs on American allies. And his “foreign policy for the middle class,” including elements of industrial policy and supply chain nationalism, has some observers wondering if it isn’t simply a softer and gentler name for the same objectives pursued by Trump.

WPR has covered the dramatic changes in the global trade arena in detail, and continues to examine key questions about future developments. Will the U.S. and Europe formulate a collective approach to China’s unfair trade practices? Will Beijing’s use of trade as coercive diplomacy backfire? Will the WTO’s new director-general be able to return the organization to relevance? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

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U.S. Trade Policy

On trade policy, the transition from Trump to Biden has brought surprisingly little change. The U.S.-China trade war continues, and protective tariffs remain the order of the day. On one front, though, Biden has moved to break with his predecessor, signaling an interest in thawing relations with the EU, particularly when it comes to cooperating on countering China’s unfair trade practices. But even there, parts of Trump’s legacy, like the steel and aluminum tariffs that Biden has yet to remove, continue to be an irritant.

Global Trade

There have been several major multilateral deals struck in the past four years in Asia and North America, and between the EU and a range of national and regional partners. And Africa rang in the New Year with the official launch of a new, continent-wide free trade zone. But there are indications, from Brexit to Trump’s presidency, that voters might be willing to sacrifice economic connectivity to enhance national sovereignty.


The WTO’s new director-general, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, made history when she became the first African and the first woman to head the global trade body. She will not have much of a honeymoon period, though. The WTO must rebuild its appellate body after Trump officials blocked key appointments and ground its work to a halt, while also addressing pressing issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including an impulse by major economies to focus on securing their own supply chains at the expense of global trade rules.

[SPECIAL OFFER: Want to learn more? Get full access to World Politics Review for 30 days for just $1 and read all the articles linked here to get up to speed on this important issue.]

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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in April 2021 and is regularly updated.