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Rose '19: Sen. Warren is myopic in foreign policy

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has declared her candidacy for president. As the first name-brand politician to have officially launched a bid, she had an opportunity to set a thoughtful tone for the next two years of campaigning. I think she failed.

Let me be clear from the outset: I’m not comfortable with holding the Democratic Party to a “good by default” standard just because the Republican Party is currently controlled by a terrible president. And Warren’s opening pitch points to a sort of populist political cowardice that sadly abnegates the responsibilities of real leadership, especially when it comes to foreign policy.

Here’s the crux of the issue, from her opening statement in Foreign Affairs: “U.S. trade and economic policies have not delivered for the middle class. … The trade deals(both Democratic and Republican leaders) negotiated mainly lifted the boats of the wealthy while leaving millions of working Americans to drown. Policymakers were willing to sacrifice American jobs in hopes of lowering prices for consumer goods at home and spreading open markets abroad.”

Her message is simple: The last few decades of U.S. economic policy abroad have been bad for the median voter.

Most recently, she opposed North American Free Trade Agreement 2.0, arguing “Trump’s deal won’t stop the serious and ongoing harm NAFTA causes for American workers. It won’t stop outsourcing, it won’t raise wages and it won’t create jobs.”

What a tired, pandering and backwards position. Warren, a supposedly wonkish progressive champion, has opened her campaign with a rejection of the international economic order. Warren ignores the indisputable fact that the deals she opposes, such as those which enabled China’s accession to the World Trade Organization, have lifted around a billion people out of extreme poverty in our lifetimes and alleviated untold amounts of human suffering. To Warren, this is an example of big bad politicians helping their rich cronies at the expense of American jobs. How repulsively nativist. I guess it would be one thing if Warren were merely adopting a caricature of the idea that a nation must prioritize its own interests. If there were a substantial economic threat coming from the outside world, she’d at least have a leg to stand on. But she’s wrong about the costs trade imposes on American workers, and I suspect she knows she’s wrong.

I put enough faith in Warren’s policy chops to believe that her obvious familiarity with “trade shock” literature extends to more than just evidence that trade is bad. It’s like saying she understands that car crashes are bad, but doesn’t understand how cars help people get to work and do other good things.

Here’s the truth: Literally none of the country’s best economists think trade is bad for the country on net. And no, there’s not room to resurrect the Warren critique as just reasonable squeamishness about the redistributional effects of trade. For one thing, Warren gave up that ground when she decided to oppose NAFTA 2.0, instead preferring no deal and a worse economy. For another, the changes in the income distribution that have impacted the working class are overwhelmingly the product of a different and far more important macroeconomic trend: the fourth technological revolution. The Brookings Institution calls this “changes in the technology of production.” The New York Times calls it automation.

Finally, and most importantly, the assertion that major gains from trade do not accrue to the middle and working classes is an oversimplification so egregious that it borders falsehood. If you only look for the costs of trade, you will obviously discover working class job losses concentrated in industries that lose when competing overseas. But these same data and methods can also tell you about working class job gains in industries that get to export and outcompete their foreign counterparts. It turns out that simply adding this dimension to the most prominent studies trumpeting the negative impact of foreign trade shows overall modest job creation. Warren is wrong to suggest that CEOs are the sole beneficiaries from trade gains, because opportunity opens up everywhere.

Take NAFTA. The expert consensus is that the agreement has been modestly positive for the U.S. economy. There have been about as many jobs created as lost, and the new jobs pay 20 percent more. When Warren argues the agreement causes job losses and lower wages, she flies in the face of facts.

What makes Warren’s shallow conjuration of an economic boogeyman lurking beyond our borders all the more disappointing is her conspicuous silence on real threats. Outlining her priorities in Foreign Affairs, she mentions China nine times, but only to gently tut at the nation; not once does she discuss the million Uighurs that have been imprisoned in detention camps under the Chinese Communist Party’s latest campaign of ethnic extermination. She doesn’t mention Ukraine, Syria, Yemen, North Korea or any other country that engages in human rights abuses. She bravely and briefly endorses the review of withdrawing U.S. forces from both Afghanistan and Iraq, as though they were such similar situations that they need not require separate consideration.

Look, I get that Warren has thoughts on all of the issues I’m raising. But it matters what issues she chooses to emphasize. I am not satisfied by a “foreign policy” that’s really just bad domestic economic populism in disguise. This isn’t leadership. I sorely hope that the Democratic Party can field a candidate more willing to seriously engage with the president’s principal constitutional responsibilities. No one else in government can be commander-in-chief or negotiate treaties, and so foreign policy is necessarily at the heart of what any candidate signs up for, whether they appear to know it or not. If not, I fear that 2020 will be even more of a vacuous culture war than it has to be. If candidates do the electorate the disrespect of following Trump’s lead into an ever-less intelligent scrap for the approval of some imaginary lowest-common-denominator voter, they will find themselves punished for inauthenticity, leading from behind. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, we should know by now that wrestling a pig never works. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.

Austin Rose ’19 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and other op-eds to


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