Shadow Government

The APECs of the Obama presidency

President Obama flew west, met with Asia-Pacific leaders, and trumpeted his intention to strike a high-standards trade deal with other committed trading partners in the region, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

That paragraph could describe either this last weekend or Nov. 2009, when the president first revived the TPP (it was initially launched in Sept. 2008 under the Bush administration and set aside by the new Obama team). Perhaps that's why the story about the weekend's APEC leaders' gathering in Hawaii was buried in the inner pages of the Washington Post and failed to make the front page of the New York Times. The papers may have learned, with this president, to duly note the statements of grand intentions, but to save the gaudy headlines for actual accomplishments.

There has been some movement over the last two years, of course. The nine nations currently involved in the TPP negotiations have been meeting and hammering out a "framework" for the agreement. The Obama administration, over that time, moved from a tentative "intent to engage in discussions" to a full-fledged embrace of the TPP. New countries are now clamoring to join in the negotiations.

But enormous obstacles remain:

  • Core structural issues of the TPP remain undecided. Will the TPP be a ragged quilt of existing agreements stitched together with new patches? Or will it be a new seamless fabric designed to cover existing and future participants? If the latter, it offers two great virtues: simplicity for businesses trying to trade across the region, and a clear high standard that any newcomers will have to meet (think China). But the United States has held out for the former. It already has FTAs with a number of the TPP participants and the idea of refighting all of those market-access battles is daunting for an administration that took almost three years to pass three already-completed FTAs.
  • Will new members make significant commitments? Reports from APEC that Canada and Mexico want to follow in Japan's footsteps as new applicants to the TPP were described as a coup for President Obama. Perhaps. It certainly would heighten the economic significance of the TPP, if and when it is concluded. But the new entrants will make an already elusive agreement even more difficult to reach. Japan is more than reluctant to liberalize its agricultural sector. New Zealand has previously objected to Canada's illiberal approach to dairy imports. It is not hard to imagine an extreme in which one has a very large number of participants who engage in endless talks that never conclude (this has recently been known as "Doha" in the WTO context).
  • The unauthorized Obama administration. Because the U.S. Constitution gives authority over trade to the Congress, presidents in modern times have not dared to pursue significant trade negotiations without a grant of delegated negotiating authority (sometimes called "fast track" or "trade promotion authority -- TPA"). The danger is that an agreement negotiated without TPA protections could be sidelined through legislative maneuvering in Congress, or it could be destroyed through amendments that undid critical parts of the bargain. The Obama administration does not have TPA. It has not sought TPA. When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) moved to offer the president TPA in September, the White House opposed and the measure was voted down.
  • Unresolved issues. The reluctance to request TPA, or to table bolder proposals at the TPP talks, likely reflects the fact that there is sharp disagreement in the Congress over how the United States should approach environmental, labor, and intellectual property issues (among others). These were once covered in a May 10, 2007 agreement between the Bush White House and then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, but that fell apart when Pelosi moved to block the Colombia FTA. Any new stance will be highly contentious.
  • Staunch Democratic opposition. While the passage last month of the Korea, Colombia, and Panama deals was most welcome, it did not herald a new era of bipartisan agreement on trade. If anything, it showed an even more partisan split, with almost unified Republican support in the House and heavy Democratic opposition. Thus, trade looks like the kind of issue that would fit very well in a Clintonian triangulation strategy, in which President Obama tried to demonstrate some common cause with Republicans while distancing himself from his own party. But that hardly seems to be the President's approach to the upcoming election campaign.

For a long time, key members of the TPP negotiations had pushed for the talks to conclude this month. They did not. The fear was that beyond the Hawaii APEC meeting lay political doldrums. While business leaders have urged a mid-2012 conclusion of the TPP talks, it would be very surprising if they were not becalmed until at least mid-2013.

For the Obama administration, constrained by Democratic politics, the ideal positioning may be to have perpetual stories about the President gazing out across the Pacific, describing his ambitious vision of a 21st Century Free Trade Agreement, an agreement that will be better than all that came before in thrilling and unspecified ways. The danger for everyone else is that the Obama team may prefer perpetual reruns of this "visionary" story to any new accounts of a concluded agreement.

Kent Nishimura- Pool/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Someone please give these candidates some (foreign) assistance

Last Thursday's 90-minute debate in South Carolina was the first time Republican candidates vying for the 2012 Presidential nomination focused specifically on foreign-policy and national security. It is of course true that Americans are more interested in issues that face them domestically; with unemployment still above 9 percent, an economy that is still sluggish, and a consensus that we are in for a slow recovery, how could they not be? But it is also true that the next president will be drawn into issues that affect us globally -- the uncertain outcome of the Arab Spring, weak democracies in Latin America, and development issues in Africa.

I was surprised that several candidates suggested that, each year, our foreign assistance budget start at "zero." Really?

The only candidate to respond in a way that I found realistic was Huntsman, who blasted his colleagues with "sound-bite" campaigning. I couldn't agree more.

During my time in the Bush administration, we stressed the importance of foreign assistance and the fundamental role it plays in laying the foundations for democracy, the rule of law, economic development, health interventions, building bridges, and promoting the ideals of freedom and liberty.

Here are several key quotes from President Bush's introduction to the 2006 National Security Strategy:

America now faces a choice between the path of fear and the path of confidence. The path of fear - isolationism and protectionism, retreat and retrenchment - appeals to those who find our challenges too great and fail to see our opportunities. Yet history teaches that every time American leaders have taken this path, the challenges have only increased and the missed opportunities have left future generations less secure.

This is still true today. The presumptive leader of the United States needs to demonstrate his or her understanding that our country must continue to lead on the world stage. It is important that we as a nation (and our elected leaders) turn not to isolationism, even in rhetoric, but convey how we will continue to deal with global security and development challenges.

The path we have chosen is consistent with the great tradition of American foreign policy. Like the policies of Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan, our approach is idealistic about our national goals, and realistic about the means to achieve them.

The introduction goes on to say that the United States should also continue to promote economic prosperity around the world and to support vibrant democracies.

How is this done?

Through U.S. foreign assistance programs implemented by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. State Department, and myriad other government agencies.

Of course, there is a need to be more effective, coordinated and strategic in how we deliver this aid but I shall save that lecture for another post.

The point I want to make here is that candidates need to avoid shallow answers. None mentioned the role that foreign assistance has played since the Marshall Plan. None mentioned the 1982 speech President Reagan delivered in the Palace of Westminster when he launched the National Endowment for Democracy to foster democracy, free trade unions, and political parties.

Candidates missed an opportunity last week to explain to the general public the leadership role the United States must continue to play in the world we live in today. They were too afraid someone would ask, "Why are you spending money overseas and not at home?" None of them were prepared to discuss in simple terms the benefits we derive as a result of U.S. foreign assistance. I think the American public would continue to support foreign assistance programs if they knew the positive impact is has not just abroad, but in relation to our long-term national interests.

During my time in the administration we talked about this strategy and how it is founded on two pillars.

The first pillar is promoting freedom, justice, and human dignity - working to end tyranny, to promote effective democracies, and to extend prosperity through free and fair trade and wise development policies. Free governments are accountable to their people, govern their territory effectively, and pursue economic and political policies that benefit their citizens. Free governments do not oppress their people or attack other free nations. Peace and international stability are most reliably built on a foundation of freedom.

The second pillar of our strategy is confronting the challenges of our time by leading a growing community of democracies. Many of the problems we face - from the threat of pandemic disease, to proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, to terrorism, to human trafficking, to natural disasters - reach across borders. Effective multinational efforts are essential to solve these problems. Yet history has shown that only when we do our part will others do theirs. America must continue to lead.

To be sure, we do need to reform how we distribute foreign assistance. We need to move away from large public announcements and get back to basics. We need to target aid where we know it will make a difference. We need to make our agencies work together in distribution of funds, and the list goes on.

Last Thursday candidates missed an opportunity to say how they would make foreign assistance more strategic to promote the values of freedom and democracy we hold so close to our hearts. Let us hope that those who seek the highest office in the world will also come to recognize the role that office plays in the development of freedom and prosperity across the globe.

Alex Wong/Getty Images