Last week, those of us who care about trade got a chance to hear from some of the brightest and most politically savvy minds around when six former US Trade Representatives – spanning from the Reagan Administration to George W. Bush – appeared at the Center for Strategic and International Studies annual roundtable with former USTRs.
Sitting at the table were Bill Brock (Reagan), Clayton Yeutter (Reagan), Carla Hills (George H. Bush), Mickey Kantor (Clinton), Charlene Barshefsky (Clinton) and Susan Schwab (George W. Bush).
They were assembled to talk about the US trade agenda. But the problem was that other than the TransPacific Partnership negotiations, the current Obama Administration doesn’t seem to have a trade agenda. It was not until near the end of the program – after nearly two hours of politely tipping toeing around the current Administration’s lack of a bold trade agenda that the former USTRs finally said what they were really thinking.
Here’s a transcript, courtesy of CSIS, of WTD’s question to the panel and the response:
MS. BROADBENT: Jim Berger, right there.
Q: Hi, thank you. Jim Berger from Washington Trade Daily. I just want to thank
everyone here for their great presentations. Makes me feel 10 years younger, actually.
(Laughter.) But one thing that wasn’t addressed – and there’s a lot of momentum here about
trade going right down the line, actually right through the decades – (chuckles) – if I might say –
but it seems to have dropped off at Ambassador Schwab’s end. What happened the day you left
office, and why did it happen?
AUDIENCE MEMBERS: (Chorus of ohhs.)
Q: No, I mean after you left office. (Laughter.) But why do we have this policy now in
this administration of – essentially no trade policy, which I think you – all of you have implied?
Someone once told me, who is a neighbor on K Street here that’s been around, that the president
just doesn’t get it.
(Off-side conversations, laughter.)
MS. BARSHEFSKY: Well, all right, I’ll take a shot. I think for most presidents – and
Mickey, you may have a different view of this – for most presidents, the first couple of years of
the first term are typically spent on domestic policy. For Bill Clinton it was a little bit different,
because sitting there was the NAFTA. Sitting there was the end of the Uruguay Round
negotiations. And so there was a kind of momentum and an imperative to make administration
decisions: Do we go forward with the NAFTA and the labor environment side – (inaudible)?
Do we go forward with the Uruguay Round?
But that’s atypical. And so I think for this administration, with the president coming into
the situation he did – which is to say, massive deficits, so on and so forth, and then of course the
war, et cetera – I think that – wars – I think that his attention was probably occupied elsewhere,
frankly – and one could argue appropriately so. It seems to me, under those circumstances, it
would have been wise for the administration to better empower its Cabinet, which I think was
something of a surprise to many of us who watched.
But I do think now – with this embrace of TPP especially, and with the passage of the
Korea FTA in particular – I think the administration is beginning to see that actually this can be
an area of important advance for the president, especially in light of his export goal of doubling
exports in five years. So my hope would be – if it’s President Obama in the next four years or a
new president, my hope would be that the momentum that just is – has begun now just very
recently – and with the continuation of TPP, that a little more momentum is now put behind
these efforts. But I do think you’re right to say that – I think all of us agree in one form or
another that there’s – that there has been a bit of a slowness off the block in terms of trade.
MR. KANTOR: I didn’t imply anything. (Laughter.)
MS.: You said it outright.
MR. BROCK: Are you running for something? The rest of us will imply. You know, you can understand the first year or two because you’ve come out of a campaign; you’ve made commitments to your constituencies, in the – in the present case to labor more precisely. And you do have other
priorities you got to deal with. But at some point you do have to make a decision about what
your policy is. We have yet to see that decision. It’s not TPP; we don’t have a trade policy,
And either the president or his opponent has to say, you know, we have an economic
problem in this country. It’s not just the fiscal deficit. We’ve got a trade problem. The
opportunity is out there for us to grab. We’re not seizing it because we’re not taking the
initiative. And we’re the only people who can. Other countries not going to take it for us.
We’re the only people who can.
And somehow this country has got to start talking about trade as an issue of political
consequence. We don’t do that; we treat it as a – as a – as an issue for the textile industry or the
ethanol industry – you know, that kind of thing. And it does bother me that we seem to sort of
sit back and let the negatives take control of the debate. And that I think is really dangerous for
all of us.
MR. YEUTTER: And you know, one other element here is that, you know, too many
people, including people often at the highest levels of government and often in both
administration – either administration, really don’t see trade as a big deal. They see domestic
policy as a big, big deal, and they kind of ignore trade as being not very important in the United
States. The fact is it’s incredibly important, and it’s way more important than it was 20 or 30 or
40 years ago. And somehow, you know, people have to get that through their thick noggins.
MS. HILLS: Jim, that’s why you should continue writing. And you should make it very
clear the strategic issues are not only on the economic bilateral benefit of a trade transaction, but
also how it affects foreign policy, development policy, security policy and our economic growth
Here's the link to CSIS's video of the event: