What elements lead contentious actors to support or oppose US trade policies?

By adapting a framework used in foreign policy to the US trade policy realm, the article entitled A coalition approach to trade policymaking in the United States: the fast-track authority fiasco of 1997 and the approval of Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) with China in 2000 throws light on the elements that make contentious policy actors come together in the making of trade policy in the United States. The authors are researchers from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (Geneva, Switzerland) and from the “San Tiago Dantas” International Relations Postgraduate Program (UNESP, UNICAMP, PUC-SP) (São Paulo). They offer two plausibility probes to explore the main elements driving agreement among those policy actors in favor or against trade liberalization.

The main concepts used by the authors to analyze whether or not contentious actors are more prone to agree are two: (1) willingness to bargain and (2) pivotal actor. The authors’ preliminary finding is that more willingness to bargain and the presence of a pivotal actor lead contentious actors to enter into convenience coalitions to support or oppose trade policy in the United States. These two main concepts are based on works that theorize coalitions as decision units, particularly the work entitled “Foreign policy by coalition: deadlock, compromise and anarchy”, by Joe Hagan, Philip Everts, Haruhiro Fukui and John Stempel.

In what concerns the scope of such concepts, willingness to bargain evaluates if there are serious a priori constraints on parties which make them hesitant to negotiate or strike bargains. This concept is of relevance given that seldom are decisions based on consensus, particularly because opponents will bargain their support in exchange of political or economic benefits. When there is willingness to bargain, advocates of a policy may be able to buy off a strong dissenter with concessions. In opposition, the absence of willingness is the result of extreme distrust between parties, immediate competition for control of the government and opposition to agreements. Extreme distrust and intense competition can make actors define a policy problem as a “zero-sum” issue and thus make it difficult for measures to be approved.

The second element concerns the existence of a pivotal actor in the decision-making process. A pivotal actor can be understood as the one capable of tipping the balance in favor of one side or another, although it may not dominate decision-making process. A pivotal actor can take many forms: a political party, the President, an interest group, etc. If a pivotal actor does not take a specific side in the process, it may still act as a broker, and mediate conflicting preferences. However, the authors consider that an actor can only be pivotal when (1) it exerts relevant impact in the policy process; (2) when there are high costs of non-participation; (3) and when there is availability of resources to assume a pivotal role.

In the process of adapting Hagan, Evert, Fukui and Stempel’s framework to the US trade policy realm, the authors also present which actors are more likely to form a coalition in supporting the making of trade policy in the United States, as well as the ones that unite to bar any new trade liberalization measure (deadlock coalition). Such coalitions are grouped according to their preferences in terms of trade, and thus, party ideology and other relevant elements are left aside, as conceded by the authors. As the article also takes into consideration divisions within the Democrat and Republican parties, the framework also helps understand the puzzling association between liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans when it comes to trade policy. The events taking place in the recently elected Trump government show the usefulness of taking intraparty divisions into consideration.

According to the authors, the study is motivated by the limitations of current mainstream analyses of US trade policy, too focused on theoretical parsimony and generalization. Such works rely more and more on very disaggregated variables and are mainly interested in unfolding the source of policy preferences guiding the political action of those actors. In that context, the decision-making process itself may be left aside, along with all the outcomes that may be adequately explained according to the specificities and constraints of the policy process.

The cases used by the authors to prove the plausibility of their hypotheses took place in the Clinton government (1993-2001). The fast-track is an instrument delegated by the Congress to the Executive which allows an agreement to be negotiated without the possibility of amendments during the voting phase. It resulted in a failure in 1997, after the vote was cancelled in view of lack of support. The approval of the Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) with China in 2000, in turn, took place in a similar context, but its result was totally different as it led to the last major trade victory of the Clinton administration.

The full article was published in the issue 1/2017 (Volume 60 – N. 1) of the Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional.

About the authors

Rodrigo Fagundes Cezar – Institut de Hautes Etudes Internationales et du Developpement International, Geneve, Switzerland. (rodrigo.fagundes@graduateinstitute.ch). ORCID ID: orcid.org/0000-0002-9966-9972

Carlos Eduardo Carvalho – Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo, Departamento de Economia São Paulo, Brazil. (cecarv@pucsp.br). ORCID ID: orcid.org/0000-0002-2962-9422

Read the article

Cezar, Rodrigo Fagundes, & Carvalho, Carlos Eduardo. (2017). A coalition approach to trade policymaking in the United States: the fast-track authority fiasco of 1997 and the approval of Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) with China in 2000. Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional, 60(1), e010. Epub April 27, 2017.https://dx.doi.org/10.1590/0034-7329201700101

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