Oval Office, February 22. Donald Trump he is meeting in front of the television cameras with his maximum representative in matter of commerce, Robert Lighthizer, and with the envoy of Peking to fight in the crucial economic negotiations with the United States, the deputy prime minister, Li He. "I do not like memoranda of understanding because they mean nothing. I think you're better off if you simply go to a document. I have never been fan of the memorandums ", the president shoots, questioning the goal to which the two major powers are trying to reach. Lighthizer, with nearly four decades of experience in the field, qualifies: "A memorandum of understanding is a contract. It is the way in which commercial agreements usually … It is a binding agreement between two parties, a legal term, it is a contract ". Trump, annoyed, insists: "I disagree, I believe that a memorandum is not a contract to the point that we want. For me the contract is the real thing, Bob, I think you think alike. " And Lighthizer ditches the matter: "From now on we will not use the word memorandum anymore. We will have the same document, it will be called a trade agreement and we will not use the word "memorandum".
Being the chief negotiator of Trump's America in the trade war with China it means being prepared for situations like the one described: that the president discusses the most obvious technical aspects, live, in front of the media of the whole world and your own rivals in the dispute. It does not matter whether the negotiator has been involved in this type of dispute since the 1980s, that he led conversations with Japan for the Ronald Reagan administration, or spent years as a lobbyist for the US steel sector, one of Trump's main concerns. Nor does it matter, ideologically, to be aligned with the protectionist turn of the president. Any falcon must now in Washington know how to adapt to the more unorthodox script twists of the president.
That is right now the work of Robert Emmet Lighthizer (Ashtabula, Ohio, 1947), an old rider of the American commercial policy, critical of the Chinese regime and the World Trade Organization. Lawyer by the University of Georgetown, he lived in his own land, the Midwest, the American industrial decline, the one that has fertilized the anti-globalization discourse between the most left and right sectors of the country. When he won the election, Trump chose him as the highest representative of the United States in Commerce. "He's going to do a fabulous job of helping turn around the failed commercial policies that have robbed the prosperity of so many Americans," Trump said exultantly.
Together with Lighthizer, he appointed an industrial policy advisor to a hawk, Peter Navarro, whose nationalist discourse leaves the trade ambassador in a comparatively much more moderate position. The distribution of power and attributions between the brains of the trumpeconomy It is complex and volatile, but, in a simple way, it could be said that while Navarro focused on shaping the discourse of the commercial offensive, the ambassador would be responsible for crystallizing it in negotiations. Thus, Lighthizer managed to close an agreement to reform the great American trade treaty with Mexico and Canada (the former Nafta, now called USMCA), which must ratify the Congress.
Now he is facing the great battle of the Asian giant. Trump chose at the end of the year to give him the leadership of the negotiations, which sent a clear signal to China, which until then had had as its main interlocutor a more moderate and globalist Trump cabinet member, Steve Mnuchin, Secretary of the Treasury and ex banker of Goldman Sachs. In December, Trump and Xi Jinping reached during a G20 summit in Buenos Aires a weak truce in the commercial war I had half a world in suspense.
Washington had begun last June to approve tariffs to Chinese imports by value of 250,000 million dollars and Peking, that buys much less to EE UU, responded gravando American products by value of 110,000 million. In order to withdraw them, the Trump Administration demands structural changes from China that reduce what they consider to be unfair competition: more openness to foreign investment, the end of the obligations of transfer of technology to local companies (which considers concealed theft of intellectual property) and a reduction of public subsidies.
Donald Trump began the struggle with China by ensuring that "commercial wars are easy to win" for the richest country in the world, while importing much more from the Asian giant than it was exporting. Hence the bloated trade deficit (about 700,000 million dollars). In December, following the same strategy of provocative statements, the president snapped on his Twitter account: "I am a man of tariffs."
The negotiating tactic of Robert Lighthizer, however, is far from that of the commander in chief. Trump's ambassador is not only a connoisseur of Washington politics since the Reagan era, but also since the 1970s, when he began working as an economic advisor to the famous Republican Senator Bob Dole. In a 1984 interview in The New York Times, Lighthizer, then immersed in the conversations about steel, said: "I try to be friendly in the negotiations". And he added: "The art of persuasion lies in knowing where the point of influence is."
Trump is eager to announce an agreement, such as that obtained with Mexico and Canada, that reinforces the image he likes to offer of his presidency: that of a businessman who knows how to close advantageous deals for the country. A few weeks ago, sources of his Administration calculated that at the end of March there would be a summit between both leaders in which they would sign the pact. Robert Lighthizer tinged the enthusiasm soon after. The agreement – it did not speak of a memorandum of understanding – was difficult.