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The Peninsula

Implications for Korea of the platform of U.S. political parties – Part II: A look at the Democratic platform

Published July 26, 2016

By Phil Eskeland

Last week, we looked at the Republican Party platform.  This week, the Democratic Party is meeting to nominate its candidate for president and vice president.  Part of the agenda for the convention includes formal approval of the party platform.  As mentioned in the previous post, candidates are not bound by the platform, but it can provide insight into the policy priorities of the respective parties in order to motivate voters to pull the lever for their candidate.

As with the GOP document, the 2016 Democrat party platform also contains provisions as it relates to South Korea and the rest of Asia.  In the section entitled “Principled Leadership,” several sentences are included to reaffirm the importance of allies as an indirect retort to some of the statements from Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.  “We are stronger when we work with our partners and allies, rather than try to go it alone.   Our global network of alliances is not a burden – it is a source of tremendous strategic advantage…With American leadership, guided by our principles, and in concert with our allies and partners, the coming years can be the most stable, secure, and prosperous time we and the world have ever known.”  Similar language about maintaining strong alliances was also in the 2012 document.  “The great dangers we face…cannot be solved by any one nation alone.  Addressing these challenges requires broad and effective global cooperation.  And President Obama and the Democratic Party understand that this depends on close collaboration with our traditional allies…”

To reinforce this theme, there is another section in the 2016 platform, now entitled, “A Leader in the World,” that focuses on different regions, including Asia-Pacific.  However, the 2016 version is much shorter than the three major paragraphs contained in the 2012 Democratic platform.  The current platform states that “…[W]e will deepen our relationships in the region with Australia, Japan, New Zealand, the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand…Democrats will push back against North Korean aggression…”   This is different from the more robust policy language written in 2012 that spoke about the U.S. as a Pacific power; America’s future security and prosperity is fundamentally interconnect with Asia; the U.S. remains committed to defending and deepening our partnerships with our allies in the region; and maintaining a strong presence in Japan and on the Korean Peninsula to deter and defend against provocations by states like North Korea.

Second, the 2016 Democratic platform retains a paragraph, now under the section entitled, “Confronting Global Threats,” on North Korea.  While the 2012 document again resembles more of a short public policy statement (“President Obama will also continue to confront North Korea…with a stark choice:  take verifiable steps toward denuclearization or face increasing isolation and costs…[T]he President has made clear that the transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to states or non-state entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States and our allies, and we would hold North Korea accountable…”), the 2016 platform contains more vivid and politically-pointed language.  “North Korea is perhaps the most repressive regime on the planet, run by a sadistic dictator…Yet Donald Trump praises North Korea’s dictator, threatens to abandon our treaty allies, Japan and South Korea; and encourages the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region…Democrats will protect American and our allies, press China to restrain North Korea, and sharpen the choices for Pyongyang to compel it to abandon its illegal nuclear and missile programs.”

However, as with the GOP platform, the section on trade has drawn the most attention.  In 2012, the Democratic Party platform included two paragraphs in the economic section entitled, “Opening Markets All Over the World for American Products.”  Those paragraphs highlighted President Obama’s accomplishments in signing into law “new trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama that will support tens of thousands of private-sector jobs, but not before he strengthened these agreements.”  The 2012 document goes on express the Democrat’s commitment to “finding more markets for American-made goods—including using the Trans-Pacific Partnership…”

In contrast, the 2016 Democrat platform expresses deep pessimism regarding the overall efficacy of past free trade agreements.  The section is now entitled, “Promoting Trade that is Fair and Benefits American Workers.”  The five paragraphs begin with the acknowledgment that “…global trade has failed to live up to its promise…Over the past three decades, America has signed too many trade deals that have not lived up to the hype…We need to end the race to the bottom and develop trade policies that support jobs in America…[W]e should review agreements negotiated years ago to update them to reflect these principles.”  The 2016 document reveals that it is the priority of Democrats to “significantly strengthen enforcement of existing trade rules and the tools we have, including holding countries accountable on currency manipulation and significantly expanding enforcement resources.”  Previously, the 2012 Democratic platform called for simultaneously negotiating new trade agreements as well as fighting unfair trade practices and assisting negatively trade-affected workers.  Now, the emphasis in the 2016 document is on trade enforcement.  This language should not be surprising.   It follows a similar pattern when the priority was placed on policing existing trade agreements before negotiating new deals during the early years of the Obama Administration.   In fact, the 2016 Democratic platform states that “we will oppose trade agreements that do not support good American jobs, raise wages, and improve our national security.”  The paragraph goes on to list a series of other conditions (labor, environment, enforcement, unfair subsidies, promotion of innovation and lifesaving medicines, and open Internet) that should be included in future trade agreements.

The trade section of the 2016 Democratic platform now concludes with a statement that “these are the standards Democrats believe must be applied to all trade agreements, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).”  This revision dropped previous draft language that expressed a diversity of opinion within the party with respect to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).  While this may represent a compromise with those who called for the Democratic Party to include a specific sentence in opposition to the TPP in the 2016 platform, the final language, particularly in combination with the above mentioned sentences expressing deep skepticism on trade, represents a significant departure from the 2012 platform.

Similar to the 2016 GOP platform, the Democratic platform has mixed results for Korea – strong language is retained on the importance of alliances; North Korea is singled out as one of three major state-actor threats to the United States; but the section of trade raises serious questions about the ability of the U.S. to negotiate or adopt future trade agreements with other partners.  This is potentially troubling as both major U.S. political parties are becoming more distrustful about the benefits of trade.  As mentioned in the previous post on the GOP platform, Korea has a strong case to make that the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS-FTA) is not the source of the growing bilateral merchandise trade deficit with the United States (not including services).  In fact, a recent comprehensive economic study completed by the U.S. International Trade Commission on all free trade agreements concluded that without the KORUS FTA, the bilateral U.S.-ROK merchandise trade deficit would have been nearly $16 billion higher in 2015.

Regardless, the party platform is not binding on Democratic candidates for office but provides a window into the latest thinking of top Democratic political operatives helping to elect candidates to federal office in the United States.  Nonetheless, the developments in both major U.S. political party platforms expressing profound skepticism about the benefits of trade and the TPP in particular does not bode well, particularly in the near-term future, for prospects to open more markets abroad to a free flow of goods and services unencumbered by tariffs and non-tariff barriers.

Phil Eskeland is Executive Director for Operations and Policy at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from the Disney | ABC Television Group’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.


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