Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Suspension of disbelief in IR

My Shadow Government colleague Peter Feaver had a very nice essay in Friday’s New York Times. He argued that the Obama administration’s shifts in nuclear policy are neither as momentous nor as objectionable as critics fear. One parenthetical comment particularly caught my eye: Paradoxically, the more our adversaries buy into the administration’s spin that this ...

PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

My Shadow Government colleague Peter Feaver had a very nice essay in Friday's New York Times. He argued that the Obama administration's shifts in nuclear policy are neither as momentous nor as objectionable as critics fear. One parenthetical comment particularly caught my eye:

Paradoxically, the more our adversaries buy into the administration's spin that this is a drastic change, the stronger the critics' point. If adversaries stick to a lawyerly reading of the text, the critique loses force."

He raises an intriguing point about which matters more -- the broad understanding of what an agreement says or the actual text. Fortunately, in the world of nuclear deterrence, we do not frequently put such questions to the test. The issue is more general, however, and we had an important example of the distinction between perception and text not long ago in the world of international trade.

My Shadow Government colleague Peter Feaver had a very nice essay in Friday’s New York Times. He argued that the Obama administration’s shifts in nuclear policy are neither as momentous nor as objectionable as critics fear. One parenthetical comment particularly caught my eye:

Paradoxically, the more our adversaries buy into the administration’s spin that this is a drastic change, the stronger the critics’ point. If adversaries stick to a lawyerly reading of the text, the critique loses force."

He raises an intriguing point about which matters more — the broad understanding of what an agreement says or the actual text. Fortunately, in the world of nuclear deterrence, we do not frequently put such questions to the test. The issue is more general, however, and we had an important example of the distinction between perception and text not long ago in the world of international trade.

A key component of any administration’s trade toolkit is the authority to negotiate agreements. This delegation is both necessary and complicated, since the U.S. Constitution grants Congress authority over trade. A vast majority of trade experts, prior to 2008, would have said that "fast track" or "trade promotion authority" (TPA) meant that a suitably-negotiated trade agreement had to be submitted to a timely up-down vote in Congress.

Decades of trade negotiations proceeded on the basis of this understanding. Interlocutor governments risked putting forward sensitive market access concessions under the assurance that the resulting bargain would be immune from Congressional amendments and would receive a prompt vote. Economics professors at major universities taught this in their trade courses (I toss this last one in as an apology to my former students).

In fact, the common understanding was wrong. Congress had not tied its own hands, as almost everyone thought they had. The constitutional obstacle to delegation was even more difficult than had been thought. The cognoscenti who understood the workings of the House of Representatives knew better. The House Rules committee has remarkable power to do whatever it likes; TPA was a House rule and could be modified at any point.

The gap between perception and reality was revealed at a critical moment, when President Bush tried to use his perceived authority to get a vote on the Colombia free trade agreement in 2008. He submitted it to Congress according to the rules of TPA, at which point Speaker Pelosi changed the rules. (This was trade’s version of the "nuclear option." No one has yet come forward with a way to put trade negotiating authority back together again. President Obama has not even requested such authority.) 

There are at least two morals to this story. First, misperceptions can be powerful. The ironclad guarantee of a vote was a useful fiction all along, but it drove our trade policy for decades. Second, misperceptions may be debunked at awkward moments. The promise of a clean and timely vote on trade agreements offered reassurance, right up until the moment it was really needed.

Phil Levy is the chief economist at Flexport and a former senior economist for trade on the Council of Economic Advisers in the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: @philipilevy

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