Shadow Government

How ‘Top Gun’ Explains the TPA Trade Bill

I admit freely that I have an unusual way of winding down at night. Often I do so by watching either the first or last 10 minutes of the film Top Gun. As a firm advocate of trade with a keen understanding of how it underpins America’s global standing, Senate Democrats’ defeat of President Barack ...

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I admit freely that I have an unusual way of winding down at night. Often I do so by watching either the first or last 10 minutes of the film Top Gun. As a firm advocate of trade with a keen understanding of how it underpins America’s global standing, Senate Democrats’ defeat of President Barack Obama’s effort to pass Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) was an evening that required serious wind-down time.

Tuesday I chose the last ten minutes of the film. The pilot protagonist, “Maverick,” had experienced serious loss. His radar intercept officer “Goose” had perished in a training mission. As fellow pilot “Iceman” faces six Soviet MiGs and is in serious trouble as he tries to protect a wounded U.S. Navy ship, he calls Maverick in to help. As he sits above of the mad scramble of jets below, Maverick hesitates. The anxiety over the loss of Goose makes him pause. His new partner “Merlin” implores him to maneuver their plane into the fight. He still wavers, but in the end moves past his loss, engages, and does what needs to be done to protect America’s ship.

That is the perfect metaphor for what happened on Tuesday. Many in America are anxious over the economic losses we have experienced as technology has automated many tasks and increased global competition has lowered prices. Both of these trends have put pressure on wages, particularly for those jobs requiring less technical skills. We are indeed in a mad scramble with many other nations to determine who will fulfill the wants and desires of emerging markets’ growing middle classes.

Our economic ship of state is dead in the water in a supposed recovery that few feel, and President Obama called in the U.S. Congress to help.

He understands the potential that free trade has to restart the engine of America’s economic ship. The U.S. Senate hesitated. Many joined Merlin in imploring them to engage, rather than cower in fear-induced protectionism. Yet, rather than engage, the U.S. Senate abandoned the field, leaving Iceman and the struggling ship to perish.

There are many issues that crowd this debate. Most are chimeras camouflaging protectionist intents. From the 20,000 foot level this debate comes down to whether or not America will continue to lead or not.

America’s ultimate soft power is commerce, especially its post-World War II tradition of marshaling global support to reduce trade barriers. As the country with some of the lowest market hurdles, no one benefits more from tearing down barriers than American workers. Obstructing the effort to reduce impediments hurts America’s middle class.

Nothing reduces the likelihood that America will need to use its hard power than the advance of trade. As the French economist and politician Frederic Bastiat once said, “If goods don’t cross borders, soldiers will.” Former senior defense officials on the military and civilian side understand this. That is why they have implored Congress to act on TPA.

There is perhaps nothing more vital to the economic future of America’s children than whether trade in the region is governed by an Asian agreement led by China (that excludes America) or a Pacific agreement led by America.

As I bring a group of students to China to study in the weeks ahead, I dread all the chiding I will hear from the Chinese noting how President Obama’s snub from his own party is proof positive that democracy does not work and how their form of government is superior. I will of course rebut those jibes. What will be harder to refute is the corrosive impact of thinly veiled protectionist efforts on America’s global standing.

Luckily in politics one can push the pause button and prevent the MiGs from annihilating Iceman and the ship.

As we get to the next effort to revitalize America’s economic future and leadership status, I hope that the end of Top Gun will be foretelling. When Top Gun instructor “Charlie” asks Maverick how it is going, his reply was “On the first one, I crashed and burned,” but on the second try, “It’s looking good so far.” For the sake of American workers and those who view American leadership as a positive force of good, let us hope for a happy ending to this story.

Paramount Pictures/Archive Photos

Mark R. Kennedy is president of the University of North Dakota, author of "Shapeholders: Business Success in the Age of Activism," a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and chairman of the Economic Club of Minnesota. He previously served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, was senior vice president and treasurer of Federated Department Stores (now Macy's), was a member of the Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiation under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and led George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.
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