Since her appointment as President Biden’s U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), Katherine Tai has become known as a master of the “noncommittal interview style,” steadfastly remaining in the realm of lofty generalities “but never getting pinned down on specifics.” I’d add that this description has characterized her other public statements, too.
Last week, though, appearing on Marketplace radio, Tai appeared to let her guard slip – and in ways indicated that even moderate American liberals like her have turned as thoroughly, and in my view, worrisomely, ambivalent about the main purposes of U.S. trade policy as their more progressive counterparts.
As I’ve written, by the late-1990s, this ambivalence has long been a major obstacle to turning U.S. trade policy from an exercise in offshoring that had been devastating the productive heart of the American economy and its workforce into a drive to boost domestic employment and production. For although progressives agreed that trade policies were harming American workers, they also tended to claim that it had been harming their third world counterparts, too – which was critically important given the tight focus of pre-Trump U.S. Presidents and their allies in Congress on expanding trade with very low income countries.
As a result, their critiques of trade policy were continually debunked by convincing evidence that the era of rapid globalization had actually been a major boon to much of the “global south.” (See, e.g., here.) And they continually refused to acknowledge that, at least for some undefinable period of time, changing trade flows to channel more of the benefits to Americans would entail hard choices that came at the expense of developing countries. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t until a full-throated champion of America First-oriented trade policies emerged as a major force in American politics that public pressure finally brought the offshoring-focus of trade diplomacy to a resounding halt.
To their credit, early on in the last presidential campaign, candidate Joe Biden and his key aides recognized the importance of prioritizing of domestic interests – including worker interests – and their endorsement of Trump-ian economic nationalism has been most recently expressed in the President’s promise that “In everything we do, we will aim to make life better, safer, and easier for working families in America.”
The Biden administration’s record to date has been more mixed than its words – e.g., retaining every single dollar of Donald Trump’s China tariffs so far, but defining secure supply chains as including production nodes that are not only overseas, but locaed in many countries that haven’t remotely earned the designation of “trusted suppliers.” But it’s nonetheless revealing that even this position has some prominent globalization cheerleaders accusing the new President of neanderthal protectionism.
That’s why it was so surprising to see this exchange in Tai’s Marketplace interview:
[INTERVIEWER] “…l want to go back to that speech from a week or so ago that you gave about trade policy and environmental policy. And one of the things you aid was: ‘My job is to push for trade reforms that translate into meaningful change in the lives of farmers, ranchers, factory workers, parents and children, not just in the United States, but around the world.’ And I wonder whether you thought twice before you wrote that and you said that because to some in this country, that’s going to clang a little bit.
“Tai: Really, why is that?
[INTERVIEWER]: “Well, I think at this moment where we are a deeply polarized society, the idea that the United States trade representative would be worrying about workers, farmers, children and students in countries other than the United States might be problematic for some.
“Tai: We don’t exist in a vacuum. And, you know, all you need to do is take a look at a map. We are all inextricably linked to each other and we are sharing this planet as a home in terms of climate and COVID-19. These are collective challenges, and we only get through them if we can get through it collectively.”
As I wrote previously, the point to keep in mind is not that global win-win solutions to trade problems are impossible to conceive, or should be ruled out of hand. The point to keep in mind is that someone who starts out in a negotiation over trade (which will be a big part of Tai’s job) or anything else assuming the best of all possible worlds doesn’t seem likely to recognize when the inevitable real world complications start intruding.
This kumbaya attitude shapes up as a tactical disaster for another reason, too: Tai can be sure that any international interlocutors will be focused like the proverbial laser beam on maximizing their own countries, not on achieving some hypothetical positive sum result. If that’s her starting point, it’s all too easy to imagine that she’d accept a final outcome much closer to other countries’ preferences than to America’s.
To be clear, I’m not troubled by Tai’s remark because I think she’ll be making any of the big calls on U.S. trade policy. USTRs rarely do, and she simply doesn’t have the stature or the personal connection with the President. I’m troubled by her remark because Tai’s many years as a Congressional staffer have surely taught her never to say anything that clashes with her boss’s official line. If as careful a bureaucratic operator as the new USTR doesn’t seem to understand that she’s the Trade Representative of the United States, not the world at large, maybe Mr. Biden needs to be reminded of his real job definition, too?