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Former USTRs Discuss Trade Challenges Facing Biden Administration

Posted December 30, 2020

An online event held earlier this month by the Center for Strategic & International Studies brought together a bipartisan group of eight former United States Trade Representatives to share wisdom from their own experiences in a discussion about what a positive trade agenda should look like for the Biden administration. 

Featured in the conversation were the following USTRs: Senator William Brock (Reagan: 1981-1985); Ambassador Carla Hills (GHW Bush: 1989-1993); Ambassador Mickey Kantor (Clinton: 1993-1996); Ambassador Charlene Barshefsky (Clinton-GW Bush: 1996-2001); Senator Rob Portman (GW Bush: 2005-2006); Ambassador Susan Schwab (Bush-Obama: 2006-2009); Ambassador Ronald Kirk (Obama: 2009-2013); Ambassador Michael Froman (Obama: 2013-2017). 


Key Takeaways

Senator Portman, an influential voice within the Republican party on trade issues, urged Biden and his likely USTR nominee Katherine Tai to push for renewal of the Trade Promotion Authority, which expires on July 1, so the U.S. can finish negotiations with the United Kingdom on a free trade agreement and pursue talks with other nations.

Although Biden has indicated that he doesn’t plan to enter into any new trade agreements before making domestic investments needed to strengthen the U.S. economy, the USTRs felt that left sufficient room for him to pursue trade negotiations with the expectation of submitting them to Congress at a later date when appropriate.  

Portman also strongly encouraged Biden’s team to pursue new free trade deals with Japan and Vietnam, among others. 

Ambassador Ron Kirk, who served as USTR during the first half of the Obama administration, was doubtful that Biden would seek immediate renewal of TPA considering that not only has it been a highly divisive issue for Democrats in the past, but more importantly, COVID-19 and keeping the economy afloat was most probably going to dominate the agenda to the exclusion of almost everything else. 

Several of the USTRs said Biden would likely face pressure from Asian allies to rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a highly controversial trade deal that Republicans pressured Obama to negotiate, only to watch Trump campaign against it in 2016 and then officially pull out by executive order on the third day of his presidency.  


Unsolicited Advice for Tai
  • Bill Brock: “Create as much of a sense of optimism and purpose as you possibly can, as quickly as you possibly can. That’s one of the reasons TPP is important.”
  • Carla Hills: Form an advisory group of about a dozen business, labor, and other leaders to help rebuild support in the public for trade and “provide political pressure to move forward in a direction that I think we all agree 100% we need to do.”
  • Mickey Kantor: “Build a real consensus in the Congress ... in a common agenda. But most importantly, build a common agenda among our allies.”
  • Charlene Barshefsky: “She needs to know what she thinks, because she’ll do more negotiating within the administration than she ever will with a foreign party.”
  • Susan Schwab: “There’s some very fine people being nominated for positions who really don’t know a whole lot about trade. And she is in a position to explain and to articulate how her portfolio fits into a much broader agenda”
  • Michael Froman: “Learn from and avoid all of our mistakes and make your own mistakes instead.”

Note: A complete transcript of the event is also available here


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