In commercial diplomacy as in the Schmatte business, everything old is new again

In the story of the dilemma of Buridan’s Ass, the poor tormented beast, placed between two equidistant and equally appetizing haystacks, starves to death. In a twist on this ancient paradox, American voters, placed between two equally unappetizing political alternatives, have over the past few election cycles scurried from one to the other in a ...

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

In the story of the dilemma of Buridan's Ass, the poor tormented beast, placed between two equidistant and equally appetizing haystacks, starves to death. In a twist on this ancient paradox, American voters, placed between two equally unappetizing political alternatives, have over the past few election cycles scurried from one to the other in a constant state of revulsion and perpetual buyer's remorse.

There is a paradox within this second paradox. It is a play on the old observation of my former boss Henry Kissinger that the reason academic infighting is so fierce is because the stakes are so low: The reason political infighting is so fierce now is because the difference between the opposing haystacks, er, parties is so small.

Think about it: Bill Clinton's big twist that made "new Democrats" different from the old version was that he tacked right, embracing many of the free-market, anti-crime, stronger defense policies of Reagan-Bush Republicans. It is hard to remember but George W. Bush, all those many years ago, ran saying he had a track record of working across the aisle and the main contrast he offered from Clinton was less about policy than that he would restore the honor of the office. Oh sure, the rhetoric is shaped and twisted to appeal to the base in each party, but the mainstream policies of both parties shared many similarities. And then came Barack Obama and the promise of change. From their approach to dealing with the economic crisis to most foreign policy decisions (including, I would argue, Iraq, where Bush would probably be doing much of what Obama is), the new administration has turned out to be much more like the old than many might have expected. Indeed, many in the world hoping for a big change have been shocked to discover, once again, that for the most part U.S. presidents act alike.

In the story of the dilemma of Buridan’s Ass, the poor tormented beast, placed between two equidistant and equally appetizing haystacks, starves to death. In a twist on this ancient paradox, American voters, placed between two equally unappetizing political alternatives, have over the past few election cycles scurried from one to the other in a constant state of revulsion and perpetual buyer’s remorse.

There is a paradox within this second paradox. It is a play on the old observation of my former boss Henry Kissinger that the reason academic infighting is so fierce is because the stakes are so low: The reason political infighting is so fierce now is because the difference between the opposing haystacks, er, parties is so small.

Think about it: Bill Clinton’s big twist that made "new Democrats" different from the old version was that he tacked right, embracing many of the free-market, anti-crime, stronger defense policies of Reagan-Bush Republicans. It is hard to remember but George W. Bush, all those many years ago, ran saying he had a track record of working across the aisle and the main contrast he offered from Clinton was less about policy than that he would restore the honor of the office. Oh sure, the rhetoric is shaped and twisted to appeal to the base in each party, but the mainstream policies of both parties shared many similarities. And then came Barack Obama and the promise of change. From their approach to dealing with the economic crisis to most foreign policy decisions (including, I would argue, Iraq, where Bush would probably be doing much of what Obama is), the new administration has turned out to be much more like the old than many might have expected. Indeed, many in the world hoping for a big change have been shocked to discover, once again, that for the most part U.S. presidents act alike.

There are subtle differences, of course. For example, in recent years, a branch of the Democratic Party has been anti-trade. Of course, so has a branch of the Republican Party. (Far left and far right meet on the far side…) But in a twist appropriate to the preceding assertions, despite the fact that unions — key parts of the Democratic base — oppose free trade deals, Obama’s rhetoric and behavior in India is an indication that he is stepping right in where Clinton left off — becoming a good old-fashioned mainstream U.S. mercantilist. He now believes, as we used to say back in the Clinton administration, exports equal jobs. Since jobs are the metric by which voters will determine his score and fate as president, he is becoming a trade promoter.

In fact, Obama’s current trip is making this old Clinton trade wonk feel young again. (Think of the money I will save on embarrassing sports cars and young blondes. Ok, I already have an embarrassing sports car and a beautiful, younger blonde wife … but the car is a couple years old, my wife and I have been married 10 years, and so I appreciate this policy version of what an old friend used to call a monkey gland injection.)

In fact, Obama’s current trade policy is starting to look not just a little like Clinton policy — it is becoming a carbon copy, practically down to the language, the cheap theatrics and many of the key players. Clinton had a National Export Strategy; Obama has a National Export Initiative. The Clinton team elevated the President’s Export Council to the center of the administration. So did the Obama team. The Clinton administration had a bogeyman we beat up on (to no avail), and saw as a threat to our economic leadership (Japan), and so does the Obama administration (China). Clinton promoted free trade deals, and while Obama has done precious little on that front, that too is beginning to shift, as his administration is (finally) emphasizing getting the Korea Free Trade Agreement passed. (And who knows, the Republican victories last week may actually make that possible, since House Democrats were the main obstacle to progress on that front.)

One of the centerpieces of Clinton’s was our Big Emerging Markets initiative and now, in the age of BRICs, so too is the Obama administration focusing on these fast growing markets — case in point this most recent India visit. And to emphasize the promise of these markets, we would offer CEO meetings and a panoply of deal signings to emphasize the job creation benefits of these relationships. Admittedly, we argued each billion dollars of exports created 12,000-20,000 jobs (depending on how sophisticated the audience was) and they are arguing it is something like 5,000 per billion. But it’s the same old technique of getting deals that would have been signed anyway to be done in a way that enables politicians, who have had virtually nothing to do with them, to claim credit for the independent work of the private sector.

Come to think of it, one other thing both administrations have emphasized is protection of intellectual property rights, and the similarities between both policy approaches is becoming so close that the few former Clinton officials who are not in the Obama administration may have a case against our former colleagues who are now there and offering this… umm… flattering knock-off of virtually everything we did back in the day. (I kid because I love. But after not paying much attention to these issues in year one, since the State of the Union speech in January, they have been doing a pretty good impression of what we used to do back in the days of Hootie and the Blowfish and the O.J. trial.)

There are, of course, differences. As one senior Obama official said to me, commercial diplomacy came easier during the Clinton years because "Bill Clinton liked hanging out with CEOs, he liked rich people. Obama, I’m not so sure." And there was a real focus on free trade as a centerpiece of Clinton international policy. Indeed, international economic policy was central to Clinton’s foreign-policy in a way it has not yet been for the current administration (again, not my view, but the view of a senior White House official not too long ago.) And though I am biased, the international economic team during the Clinton years was more broadly empowered, with multiple cabinet secretaries and departments playing key roles. It is probably fair to say that U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke are among the least empowered and thus least effective occupants of their offices, ever — which is saying something. (As I have often noted, the two departments should be merged, and Commerce slimmed down dramatically. There are some great people doing great work in both … but USTR and its lean staff have definitely proven that less is more in that corner of the federal bureaucracy.)

It’s quite interesting that all this is happening now, of course, as BusinessWeek runs a cover story on Chamber of Commerce honcho Tom Donohue titled "Obama’s Tormentor," emphasizing how business has turned against the president and how successful they were during this last election cycle. One might conclude the president’s shift over the past year to a more engaged set of commercial policies was related to that. But that would be cynical. It would also probably be at least partially wrong. Most modern presidents embrace engaged commercial policies. There is a reason for that. It’s their job.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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