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The Syria Crisis, U.S. Trade, and the Pivot to Asia

The Syria Crisis, U.S. Trade, and the Pivot to Asia

Given the wild developments in Syria during the last few weeks, the debacle there has the potential to push all other issues out of the spotlight. Of course, one reason the issue was so important is that the United States relies on its credibility across the full spectrum of foreign policy. When that credibility is dented, it is time to explore the ramifications.

Dan Twining, at the close of his recent Shadow post, draws the connection to Asia:

Finally, the shambles of the president’s Syria policy have sent a broader message to the world that the United States is walking away from the role it has played for a century as chief enforcement officer of a liberal international order. This could have explosive consequences everywhere, but especially in Asia. There, worries that the U.S. "pivot" was little more than rhetoric are now compounded by the spectacle of an American president who seems self-deterred from enforcing his own ultimatum against a weak, isolated rogue state.

The pivot to Asia had multiple components. A renewed doubt about the willingness of the United States to use its military might and defend red lines could certainly diminish the value of the attention that Asian partners thought they were getting. But what of the other facets?

The other substantive component of the pivot lies in commercial policy. There, Barack Obama’s administration revived an effort by George W. Bush’s administration to seek a regionwide Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. President Obama declared his intention to engage with these talks late in 2009. There was initially hope among participants that the agreement might conclude by the time the United States hosted the APEC meetings in Hawaii in late 2011. Instead, only a framework for discussions emerged.

Since then, the degree of difficulty of the undertaking has ratcheted upward, as Mexico, Canada, and Japan have joined the talks. Obama just reiterated the importance of concluding the talks this year. Going into August’s TPP ministerial meeting, according to Inside U.S. Trade, the Malaysian cabinet saw so many unresolved issues that it was unwilling even to endorse a deadline. Coming out of those meetings, the administration was hit with a barrage of domestic controversies over topics ranging from tobacco to exchange rates. Lest those seem trivial, the AFL-CIO just threatened to oppose the TPP and issued a resolution stating that though the agreement had once seemed promising, "it now seems likely to be yet another in a long string of trade agreements that elevate corporate interests at the expense of working people."

Had the administration done its homework for this agreement, it would have long since had negotiating authority in place (so-called "trade promotion authority" — TPA). Instead, without significant White House involvement, congressional plans to conclude TPA by late June never came to fruition. Now Congress is facing a busy legislative calendar, further squeezed by the Syria debate. Furthermore, the committees that would pass TPA — the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee — are the same ones that will have to deal with a looming budget crisis.

A key reason that trade negotiators have traditionally needed explicit negotiating authority is that Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to regulate trade policy. Negotiating authority has been a way for Congress to let the administration go forth and engage with trading partners without worrying that the resulting deal will be picked apart on Capitol Hill.

One danger of an excessively delayed TPP is that countries in the region will lose faith and turn to alternative regional groupings, such as the RCEP agreement being put forth by China.

So, to summarize, we have a difficult pending action in a key region. It is an issue that has been brewing for years, and the details of how to carry it off are complex. It is a topic on which the president has vowed to approach things differently from how his predecessor did, yet core domestic supporters of the president look likely to oppose the action. For this to succeed, the president will have to win over a divided Congress, and he is more likely to get support from Republicans than Democrats. This is an area in which Congress has constitutional authority, but the president executes the policy and will be held responsible for the outcome. If the United States falters, it looks as though a potential geopolitical rival might step in and gain regional influence. Despite the challenges, the president has said it is important to U.S. foreign policy; though he has not yet put forward a specific plan, the implication is that countries should just trust that he will see it through.

Now why would America’s Asia-Pacific partners draw any inferences from the recent episode with Syria?