Donald Trump Has Put the Wind up World Trade Leaders

Officials in Geneva are running scared.

Faced with the prospect of a U.S. president who pledges to rip up trade agreements, slap tariffs on allies and pull out of the World Trade Organization, top trade officials are in various states of denial and dread.

Some world trade officials are trying to convince themselves that Trump doesn’t really mean what he says about trade agreements. Others are banking on “Congress, the courts or other impediments” stymying Trump in the event he wins the election and tries to deliver on his pledges to the American people.

“Policy has to be built on reality, and if you are elected, you cannot disregard reality — not even Trump,” said another official.

Yet another European wasn’t so sure about any of the above. He warned that “after Brexit, nothing can be ruled out.”

These are confounding times for global trade officials who have spent their careers promoting the gospel of open markets as the path to prosperity and peace, and who regard recent developments in the U.S. with “a mix of amazement and consternation,” as one official put it.

In the short term, many fear Trump’s election would mean the U.S. would step back from its leadership role in the WTO, which would undermine the group’s clout, whether negotiating new agreements, resolving disputes or enforcing participants’ adherence to existing pacts.

But more broadly, Trump’s slashing anti-trade rhetoric as well as Hillary Clinton’s opposition to the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership — following on the heels of the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union — are such significant rebukes they are causing many officials to re-examine some of their most cherished assumptions.

“What is of concern is that those words are finding echo in the population,” said WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo, referring to the campaign rhetoric of both Trump and Clinton.

“We cannot turn a blind eye to that and assume that everything is OK once the campaign is over,” said Azevedo, a Brazilian who has led the global trading body since 2013. “That’s one problem that we have today: Those voices have been there for a while, and nobody ever took the time to really understand it and find a solution for that problem.”

Some can’t bear even the thought of a Trump presidency.

“I don’t want to even entertain the idea of Mr. Trump becoming president of the U.S.,” said another senior Geneva official when asked about the U.S. presidential campaign. “Because that would be a disaster.”