By Ben Conner, USW Director of Policy
Every year, the USW Wheat Letter features an article on the annual release of the National Trade Estimate (NTE) report by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR). While the issues it quantifies do not change rapidly, the latest NTE shows the extent of the problems facing the Trump Administration, which has made trade enforcement a cornerstone of its economic policy.
The NTE is the U.S. government’s most comprehensive report on trade barriers. It covers more than 40 countries or country groupings. In just under 500 pages, it clearly shows that these barriers pose a major challenge for U.S. exporters and investors. Most of the issues are policies that violate rules of a U.S. trade agreement or the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Considering trade enforcement, the NTE may understate the challenge. For the wheat industry alone there are several barriers not listed in this massive report. If USTR decided to pursue every long-standing issue facing the United States through dispute settlement, it would stretch its resources far past the breaking point. Unfortunately, new problems seem to arise faster than it takes governments to fix old problems.
This underscores the need for countries to commit strongly to a rules-based trading system. Trade disputes are one way to address the problems, but even a country with considerable resources for trade disputes like the United States, which has sued or been sued in nearly half of all WTO disputes, can barely begin to address outstanding issues through disputes alone.
However, strategic enforcement is important to maintaining the effectiveness of international trade rules. There are economic benefits from fixing specific trade barriers, but just as vital is the deterrence effect on countries that would consider implementing new barriers. If we must litigate every issue, the system could collapse.
Last year, USTR took a big step in challenging non-compliant domestic support programs in China — a growing problem for at least a decade. The NTE mentions similar problems in India, Turkey and Brazil and the hope is that the China cases lead to serious reforms to subsidies in these countries as well. USW and USTR need to stay vigilant to help reverse the trend of increasing WTO-violating subsidies and ensure that countries consider their trade commitments before implementing new policies.
Every country, including the United States, has unique internal pressures that may divert them from trade commitments at the margins. The NTE is an important way to demonstrate how those pressures affect U.S. industries, but without effective enforcement and negotiated solutions, it is just a very long list.