The Advantages of Unilateralism


The advantages of the unilateral approach are simple and direct. The biggest plus of unilateralism is that when it works, the gains are tangible and the domestic political costs are minimal.The clout of the American economy commands so much influence that often the threat of trade sanctions is sufficient to cut through a diplo- matic impasse. If the United States can wield its market power as a means of extracting trade concessions, then it can force other coun- tries into lowering their trade barriers without having to make rec- iprocal concessions. When the threat of economic sanctions works, sanctions never need to be implemented because the Unit- ed States can extract the trade concession it seeks short of taking action against the country in question. When used against coun- tries that depend on the American export market, such a threat can generate improved access for U.S. exporters. In the past, the threat and implementation of unilateral economic sanctions has pushed countries to boost protection of IPR, respect the ocean envi- ronment, and demonstrate greater respect for labor unions.

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The current moment offers the United States an excellent opportunity to exploit its unilateral option. Prior analyses show that when a country runs a sizable trade surplus with the United States, it is more likely to make substantive concessions in the face of economic pressure. Given the large trade surpluses that many countries currently run with the United States, more pressure may yield more liberalization.



White Paper D: The Multiple Tracks of Trade Diplomacy


Unilateral measures can also indirectly lead to progress on lib- eralization.The threat of sanctions forces other major trading states to recalculate the costs of delaying the Doha round of the WTO— just as the use of Section 301 in the late 1980s spurred progress in the Uruguay round. Unilaterally, the United States can also make liberalizing gestures that have little effect on the trade balance but serve foreign policy and development interests. For example, uni- laterally reducing barriers to sub-Saharan African imports beyond the AGOA has little effect on aggregate trade flows but is seen as a symbol of American generosity toward an entire continent.

A final advantage of pursuing this route of trade diplomacy is that, compared to the multilateral and regional tracks, Congress is required to do very little. The only thing it must do is support the Super 301 process, which requires the USTR to issue an annual report on barriers to U.S. exports and establish specific timeta- bles toward the elimination of such barriers. Super 301 authority lapsed in 2002 and requires congressional reauthorization.The sen- timent underlying Super 301 resonates with an American public convinced that other countries are exploiting U.S. economic openness—making this approach an easy political sell. Although congressional resistance to the unilateral reduction of tariffs and quotas for African goods might be slightly greater, opposition would be more politically difficult if the move were framed as develop- ment policy rather than as a question of trade politics.

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