Biden’s Trade Policy is Sound; This is Coming From a Conservative

Today’s administration has weathered lots of flack over the economy and a host of other issues, but, as one with a 25+ year career helping the U.S. access foreign markets, aided by being an appointee to federal advisory committees with the same aim, Washington is forwarding America’s interest quite well on this important matter. This is of great relief to those who support smart U.S. trade policies and (as proof this isn’t just cheerleading for one’s own political team) is of the opinion of this Republican.

Understand, trade negotiations typically follow a scripted, methodical, sector-by-sector protocol that diplomats around the world practice. In the U.S., unlike in many countries, negotiators get regular input from industry by way of vetted, security-cleared trade advisory appointees — on which I’ve served for many years and under numerous administrations — assuring that they stay on track with what matters to the private sector and what doesn’t.

Importantly, labor and environment concerns are addressed front-and-center with chapters in agreements, as well as advisory committees, dedicated solely towards those aims. That has been in pace under Biden, Trump, Obama, and others before.

Here’s why I believe that why we remain on track:

  1. Relax: There are adults in the room, and there always have been.

Most of Team USA – those under the White House’s office of Trade Representative (USTR), Commerce’s International Trade Administration, USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service, and the State Department – are talented, smart, career practitioners solely aiming to advance U.S. interests. While priorities ebb and flow each time a new Administration takes the reigns, they know the drill: Overlay the priorities du jour while still striving to keep the doors open to foreign markets, shield U.S. interests against unfair trade practices, and tackle theft of intellectual property rights, which is rampant.

  1. They’re focused on what matters to us today

USTR and Commerce negotiators now regularly cite their primary objectives in this order: Supply chain kinks, inflation (particularly as to food costs), labor, the environment (climate change), and small and medium size enterprises (SMEs). The administration could do a much better job at communicating that, but, in fact, it’s “all hands-on-deck” trying to address all that.

  1. Pivot towards Asia

President Biden’s recent Asia tour strongly reaffirms the U.S.’s efforts to bolster its influence in the region aimed at smoothing-out supply chain issues, diversifying reliance on China, and, most importantly, to counter Chinese influence in the region which many countries there have grown weary of. And the timing underscored to North Korea and China the “united west’s” response towards Ukraine and what it may mean to them should they go rogue.

The recent announcement of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) is a case in point. It aims to strengthen economic and trade ties with (non-China) Asia/Pacific as envisioned in the original Trans-Pacific Partnership but with different objectives. Together the 13-nation alliance represents 40% of world GDP.

Here, too, a more immediate aim is to address inflation and supply chain disruptions as well as trade facilitation – primarily focusing on harmonizing digital trade rules – as well as “Clean Economy” (decarbonization) and “Fair Economy” (cracking down on corruption).

Importantly, learning from past experience with trying to forge multilateral agreements, the approach is that of an “executive agreement” and not a “comprehensive trade agreement” thereby foregoing the need for Congressional approval. Basically, it addresses the goals in a staggered approach rather than presenting a 1,000+ page “all or nothing” document that becomes political theater for Congress.

Many industries view the IPEF as a positive step but recommend concrete goals and a timeline so it doesn’t devolve into another Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — torpedoed by Congress after six years of failed negotiations. Although many question why it doesn’t address market access (tariff cuts) while labor groups around the world are saying that it doesn’t put workers front and center.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is stepping-up its efforts to deepen trade and investment relations with Taiwan, with recent high-level discussions on SMEs, digital trade, regulatory transparency, among others.  Taiwan is not part of the IPEF; instead, the U.S. is engaging them independently for concern of China’s reaction.

All told, the veteran negotiators are still doing what they’re good at – trade facilitation – but overlaid with the immediate goal of addressing our economic woes, geopolitical strength where most needed, and social and environmental aims long championed by the Democratic party.