Alfonse D'Amato

U.S. trade strategy is on right track

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There’s plenty of second-guessing on all sides as President Trump seeks to negotiate better trade deals for the U.S. But these negotiations are particularly tricky to get right, and the administration deserves some leeway in order to achieve the best outcomes.

For instance, last week the president took flak from both the left and the right after suggesting some relief from the Iran trade sanctions for Chinese telecommunications company ZTE. Critics complained that Trump was somehow undercutting the U.S. position with this apparent concession to China.

Nonsense! I believe this negotiating tactic gives the president greater power to deal with China, not only on trade, but on other international issues as well. What good would it do to put up to 75,000 Chinese people out of work with these sanctions when there are bigger issues at stake — not just trade, but other international matters as well?

I believe it’s better to use power for our own country’s advantage, as the president is doing, by recognizing that China can be especially helpful in our dealings with North Korea, which poses major challenges to both the U.S. and China. Using trade concessions in recognition that China can wield influence on North Korea is smart. It’s what Trump’s book “The Art of the Deal” is all about.

As the U.S. prepares for what will likely be difficult negotiations with North Korea over American demands that it dismantle its nuclear weapons program, China can press the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, to meet these demands. Other trade imbalances between the U.S. and China can and should be corrected as well, but right now the best thing for both countries is to defuse the North Korean nuclear menace, even as we push for a fair trade relationship with China.

The Trump administration has shown the same kind of flexibility in its trade negotiations with our European allies and our neighbors, Canada and Mexico. When broad tariffs are proposed on items such as steel imports, it makes sense to grant limited tariff relief to specific industries and individual trading partners to encourage a more positive response to proposed trade reforms. Particularly in the case of negotiations surrounding the North American Free Trade Agreement, the administration is right to use a carrot-and-stick approach, which recognizes that some trade leeway should be given to key sectors, like agriculture and manufacturing, that span both sides of our borders.

All of these trade negotiations should come together in a way that meet Trump’s pledge for a fairer trading situation for American businesses and workers. Right now, the U.S. is on track to maintain solid economic growth into the foreseeable future. With better deals with our trading partners, this growth can get a real shot in the arm. Our national unemployment rate, which is already at historically low levels, could go down even more. That should spread more jobs and higher wages to the hardest-pressed working Americans who struggle most to make ends meet.

All of which brings me to the next phase in securing American economic improvement for the long haul. Economists tell us that as our economy continues to improve, we will eventually hit a growth wall created by simple demographics. The American work force is aging rapidly, and in almost every industry, labor shortages — especially of skilled workers — loom on the horizon.

Today there are hundreds of thousands of skilled jobs going unfilled in the U.S. for lack of qualified, trained workers. Without aggressive training programs to help match workers’ skills with these available jobs, businesses that depend on skilled workers won’t be able to continue to grow. And even in businesses with less-skilled employees, there aren’t always enough workers to go around — not enough laborers to harvest produce, to work in construction or to take jobs in the service sector.

So, eventually, my former colleagues in Washington are going to have to confront another hurdle to sustained economic growth here at home. They’re going to have to face the challenge of reforming our immigration laws to establish a balanced inflow of workers to meet the demands of a growing American economy. The current situation, in which immigrants continue to sneak into the U.S. illegally and live in the shadows, just won’t do. It’s time to finally secure our borders, and then establish a systematic process for allowing in the mix of skilled and unskilled workers we’ll need to grow and prosper.

Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column? ADAmato@liherald.com.