Shadow Government

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

How to Get Trade Negotiators’ Flights to Actually Lead Somewhere

Could a good night’s rest, a true flat-bed, and an international wine selection rescue global trade policy? Were U.S. relations with South Korea saved by a lakeside stroll? My esteemed interlocutor, Dan Drezner, raises these questions in the context of looming sequester cuts to the travel budget of the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. ...

MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images
MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images
MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

Could a good night's rest, a true flat-bed, and an international wine selection rescue global trade policy? Were U.S. relations with South Korea saved by a lakeside stroll? My esteemed interlocutor, Dan Drezner, raises these questions in the context of looming sequester cuts to the travel budget of the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

With the demise of Intrade, it's hard to give precise figures on how severely the odds on the trade policy wager I struck with Dan have swung in my favor, but Dan seems to sense that he may come up just a few million dollars short.

I'm sympathetic. The sequester is no way to set fiscal policy. Ideally, the White House would put forward budget policies that enjoyed a chance on Capitol Hill, and the Senate would pass a budget more often than once every four years. Requisite choices about how to spend scarce (borrowed) dollars could certainly be made in a more sensible way.

Could a good night’s rest, a true flat-bed, and an international wine selection rescue global trade policy? Were U.S. relations with South Korea saved by a lakeside stroll? My esteemed interlocutor, Dan Drezner, raises these questions in the context of looming sequester cuts to the travel budget of the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

With the demise of Intrade, it’s hard to give precise figures on how severely the odds on the trade policy wager I struck with Dan have swung in my favor, but Dan seems to sense that he may come up just a few million dollars short.

I’m sympathetic. The sequester is no way to set fiscal policy. Ideally, the White House would put forward budget policies that enjoyed a chance on Capitol Hill, and the Senate would pass a budget more often than once every four years. Requisite choices about how to spend scarce (borrowed) dollars could certainly be made in a more sensible way.

I also concur that it is penny-wise and pound-foolish to skimp on diplomatic travel. I’m quite certain it is possible to come up with compelling examples in which the ability of a diplomat to rest or get work done on a long flight had a measurable impact on national well-being.

Yet neither Dan’s post nor his citations from the New York Times manage to do so. The Doha trade talks really faltered after prolonged negotiations in Geneva failed in the summer of 2008. Those talks stretched on so long that jet lag cannot be held responsible for their demise.

The other example given is of an informal conversation between Michael Froman, then U.S. deputy national security advisor for international economic affairs, and South Korea’s trade minister that helped seal a trade bargain. Imagine what might have happened had Froman’s travel budget not allowed him to be there!

Well, then perhaps the administration could just have pushed for passage of the perfectly good U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement bequeathed them by George W. Bush’s administration. Barack Obama’s administration unwisely failed to back that earlier agreement, spent a great deal of time and effort (and travel) making changes that did little to enhance national welfare, and ended up with one of the more awkward outcomes in international relations — when two leaders stand on a podium at an international gathering and publicly announce they have failed. Closure only came later, when the Koreans flew to the United States.

There is a useful distinction here between necessary and sufficient measures to promote national interests abroad. Diplomatic travel falls into the "necessary but not sufficient category." Dan should rest assured that he will not lose his bet because an assistant U.S. trade representative was asked to travel on frequent-flier miles. He will lose because of the unwillingness of the administration to make politically difficult choices on trade — an interesting parallel to its aversion to tough budget choices.

To be helpful, though, let me offer a suggestion: Fully restore funding for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. In fact, be generous and allow business-class travel more liberally. But attach this funding to a broad, new "trade promotion authority" bill, the sort of measure that senators such as Rob Portman (R-Ohio) have been pushing for years, with no administration support. If done properly, such a bill would grant negotiating authority for the full range of agreements on the U.S. agenda — the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, and an international services agreement under the World Trade Organization. It would resolve difficult open issues about the stances negotiators should take on labor, the environment, intellectual property, and regulation.

That’s likely to be a fractious debate. But with trade promotion authority in hand, we can have more confidence that U.S. negotiators’ intercontinental flights will actually lead somewhere. 

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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