Daniel W. Drezner

How to undermine American power for less than $10 million

During my brief time working for the Treasury Department, officials who travelled to Europe were allowed to take the red-eye flight two nights before the beginning of any negotiations.  The premise was simple:  jet-lagged officials are probably not going to be the best negotiators.  The U.S. also usually had one of the larger delegations at the ...

During my brief time working for the Treasury Department, officials who travelled to Europe were allowed to take the red-eye flight two nights before the beginning of any negotiations.  The premise was simple:  jet-lagged officials are probably not going to be the best negotiators.  The U.S. also usually had one of the larger delegations at the meetings I attended.  This was extraordinarily useful, because when bargaining disputes came up, it was the Americans who were usually able to chase down the relevant piece of information that turned into a small concession.  I don’t mean to exaggerate the effect of these things — it’s not like Germany was going to acquiesce to everything because the United States negotiating team was larger and well-rested.  Still, on the margins, this sort of thing mattered. 

I bring this up because Mark Landler has a truly depressing story in the New York Times about one effect of the budget sequester:  the office of the U.S. Trade Representative is finding it hard to, you know, negotiate or enforce trade agreements

The Office of the United States Trade Representative has been waging a lonely battle for its budget, which shrank 7 percent to $47 million this year because of sequestration spending caps. Officials in the office, pointing to the 2014 budget proposal in the Republican-controlled House, fear that they could end up with even less money next year.

This matters, officials say, because trade negotiators fly hundreds of thousands of miles just doing their jobs. Since the trade representative’s office spends the bulk of its budget — $46 million — on fixed costs like salaries, benefits and office supplies, a cut of $5 million or $8 million could effectively ground much of its 250-person work force.

“We are in a situation where we’ve having to choose: Can we send people to a negotiation? Can we bring this enforcement case or another?” the newly appointed trade representative, Michael Froman, said in a recent panel discussion with the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Thomas J. Donohue….

The office’s financial woes have become a minor scandal in trade circles. Susan C. Schwab, a former trade representative in the George W. Bush administration, noted that even in the best of times, life at the office is not glamorous. Negotiators typically squeeze into economy-class seats for 15-hour flights to Asia, after which they plunge into round-the-clock talks on complex issues.

“All of this is under severe threat by virtue of $5 million, $8 million, $10 million,” Ms. Schwab said. “That’s a real travesty.”

If you excuse me, I need to go do this: 

[C’mon, Dan, geography doesn’t matter anymore!!  Why can’t they just Skype these negotiations?!–ed.]  I’m glad you asked.  Let’s go back to that Landler story: 

As anyone who has watched the ritual of the Doha Round of talks between World Trade Organization members can attest, international trade negotiations are grinding, labor-intensive ordeals, requiring teams of lawyers and other specialists who camp out in hotels in foreign capitals for months. Breakthroughs, when they come, are often reached away from the bargaining table.

When the White House was renegotiating a provision of the South Korean free-trade agreement pertaining to market access in South Korea for American cars, Mr. Froman, then the deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs, and South Korea’s trade minister, Kim Jong-hoon, left the hotel for a stroll around a lake.

Their walk produced a critical advance in the negotiations — a fortuitous moment that generally does not happen when negotiators are squinting at fuzzy images of one another on video conference calls.

This is the kind of budgetary expenditure that perhaps even Rand Paul would agree is one of the things that only the federal government can do.  And yet U.S. economic leadership is being compromised because of a measly $10 million.  And I’m going to deduce that because this is the sequester kicking in, it’s not just the USTR that is finding its travel budget cut, but the Departments of State, Treasury, Defense, Justice and Energy as well. 

Now I know, I know, that this is because the budget sequester was designed to be so unbelievably f**king stupid that it would somehow jolt Congress into saner budget cuts.  And yet, now it’s being implemented. 

As longtime readers are aware, I’m reasonably upbeat about the fundamentals of U.S. power.  It’s when I see stories like this, however, that I despair about the ways in which Congress can weaken U.S. influence in the world with just the tiniest of budget cuts.  Plus, it means I might lose my bet to Phil Levy

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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