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Donald Trump: what effect has he had on the maritime industries over the last four years?

Updated July 30, 2020 (09:18)

By Justin Stares, Editor, The Maritime Watch

The Egmont Palace in Brussels, an ornate, neoclassical building, hosted a downbeat dinner for port industry executives in November 2016.

Diners were depressed by Donald Trump's election and the Brexit vote, which, they agreed, marked an unwelcome populist lurch. President Trump's protectionism would reduce international trade, the after-dinner speaker predicted. Port volumes would suffer.

The first ripple in the diplomatic pond was felt the following year in London, at the IMO's headquarters. After years of behind-the-scenes work as a relatively honest broker, US diplomats disengaged while the US State Department and the US Coastguard jostled for power. A policy U-turn was in the making.

By 2018, when diplomats returned to their subtle IMO lobbying (a less aggressive version of the Brussels frenzy) the US had joined the ranks of climate change sceptics such as Brazil and Saudi Arabia.

The plan, it emerged, was to filibuster. Sceptics wanted impact assessments to accompany emission-reduction measures such as speed limits. Given that the IMO does not normally conduct formal impact assessments, this was interpreted as a brake on progress. China, previously reticent on emissions, was at this point "more constructive" than the US, EU diplomats said.

There were even US calls for a delay (dubbed a "phase-in") to the 0.5% 2020 rule on sulphur emissions, though by the time they emerged, the IMO decision-making machine had too much momentum to be stopped.

In the undiplomatic world of moving goods and passengers from A to B, the Trump administration has on the other hand arguably had little impact. The President has denigrated international institutions such as the World Trade Organization, though this has had more of an unsettling than a tangible effect as yet.

Market interference has been more sporadic than systematic. Soybean flows have altered as trade tensions with China ebbed and flowed, but US policy can hardly be seen as more protectionist than that of the EU, which intervenes in agriculture and steel markets whenever it sees fit.

President Trump was in fact joining a protectionist bandwagon that had been slowly gaining power over the previous decade. Protectionism has accelerated sharply as his term draws to a close, though he is far from the only proponent. In the EU, where the so-called 'single market' was completed more than 25 years ago, manufacturers are today banned from exporting medication to their European neighbours by national authorities.

From a long-term perspective, the US climate change volte-face could have sunk the IMO's last chance at setting up a global CO2 market mechanism, thereby ushering in a regional EU scheme.

But otherwise, and in contrast to the dire Egmond Palace predictions, President Trump's four years in office have proven largely benign.

This is the eleventh in a series of Maritime Watch crisis editorials. If you want them straight to your email inbox, sign up for the alerts at the top of the homepage.

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