For nearly three quarters of a century, the U.S. led the charge for global free trade, while developing countries like Japan and China pursued a more protectionist path. Now, in an odd role reversal, President Trump is vowing to put America first, while China’s Xi Jinping has said he wants to pick up the torch to lead globalization.
How will that play out? That was Fortune’s question to one of the pioneers of globalization, FedEx founder and CEO Fred Smith. He was a spotlight guest at a dinner in New York on March 13 in the run-up to the Fortune Global Forum, which will assemble the world’s top business leaders in Guangzhou, China, in December.
Smith worries that the new nativist approach backed by Trump threatens to make the U.S. the equivalent of Argentina or Brazil: “Trade has been a big part of U.S. growth and success, and what we need to be doing is leaning into more trade, not less.”
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He also fears that China’s Xi will have trouble following up on his globalization promise. Smith championed China’s entry into the World Trade Organization back in 2001 but says the nation’s free-trade record since then has been less than stellar. While Xi has called for economic reforms, the Chinese “can’t bring themselves to cut the spigot of loans off to state-owned enterprises,” Smith says.
Unless that happens, China could be headed for a painful reckoning, and global free trade could be the odd man out.
A version of this article appears in the March 15, 2017 issue of Fortune with the headline “Free Trade Fears.”