Throughout history, American presidents have been recognized for their diverse and creative approaches to foreign policy. President Truman talked about “containing” the Soviet Union; Eisenhower, about a “new look”; Kennedy, of a “flexible response”; and Reagan, about “peace through strength.” With the end of the Cold War, American foreign policy doctrines have lost their iconic labels such as those mentioned above. Nevertheless, each leader demonstrates unique and characteristic patterns of opinions and intentions. President Trump is no exception, and in his geopolitical arsenal, he includes a somewhat unorthodox and thus far, not very controversial element: free trade.
During the campaign, President Trump was critical of Chinese trade policies. He was unhappy with the U.S. trade deficit. He accused the Asian country of engaging in non-transparent and anti-competitive practices and blamed it for the decline of the U.S. manufacturing industry. The trade war with China was a logical and expected step. But behind this conflict of economic characteristics, there is an element of geopolitical aggressiveness. China, the second world power behind the U.S., represents a threat in economic, political and military terms. Its unprecedented global growth and expansion, with origins in its market reforms, has only been possible through the integration of the global economy and free trade. In order to keep growing, China needs trade, and here is where the Trump doctrine comes in.
The Trump doctrine is disruptive in the sense that it identifies areas of vulnerability and dependency. For example, as a result of the trade war, China reported the lowest level of growth in 27 years. If this pattern continues, the Trump administration will acquire an advantage in any negotiation scenario, be it economic, political and/or military. As a good business man, Donald Trump understands that any nation’s supremacy stems from a well-run economy.
The anti-commercial strategy does not only apply to China. Last month, President Trump announced that he would impose 5% tariffs on all Mexican goods entering the U.S. A Mexican delegation traveled immediately to Washington in order to negotiate. The result: a greater military presence on the southern border of Mexico with the objective of containing the Central American migrant flow. In a matter of days, President Trump achieved his goal without any further complications.
With the 2020 presidential election on the horizon and with his campaign promises under public scrutiny, President Trump needs to show results in the area of migration. Restrictive changes in the political asylum process and the possible agreement with Guatemala that would turn the neighboring nation into a “safe third country” are only the beginning. El Salvador, one of the countries with the most undocumented migrants in the U.S., could be the next target of the Trump doctrine.
The extensive commercial and political relationship between both countries will not be immune to this doctrine. Unlike the Mexican and Chinese cases, El Salvador depends more on the U.S. in commercial matters than the U.S. depends on El Salvador. The United States is El Salvador’s most important trade partner, a relationship stimulated by the existing free trade agreement. The United States furthermore enjoys a trade surplus with El Salvador, something that does not happen between the American nation and its most important commercial partners. Therefore, as regards the trade balance, the United States has a significant advantage in any negotiations taking place in the future.
The government of El Salvador needs to be prepared and play its cards wisely, with clear and direct arguments. Despite not having much to choose from, it needs to emphasize the historic relation between the two countries. It also needs to make it very clear that if the U.S. leaves the free trade agreement, El Salvador will be forced to seek alliances and treaties with other world powers antagonistic to U.S. aspirations.