Out with the old, in with the new

Signs of a new U.S. approach on trade and the politics of foreign policy

The opening session of talks between the United States and China in Alaska called to mind a scene from frosty Cold War summits, with the two countries’ top diplomats outlining fundamentally opposed worldviews as they sought to make clear their views on a range of issues. Going into the talks, expectations were so low that one senior Biden administration joked to the New York Times that “it would be more efficient for both sides to simply fax over their respective talking points.” 

But away from these scenes, another important event happened that will impact U.S.-China ties: the U.S. Senate’s confirmation of President Joe Biden’s pick for U.S. trade representative, Katherine Tai. In an era when Washington is sharply divided on a wide range of issues, getting a 98-0 vote is no small accomplishment. Tai, a former advisor to House Democrats, became the first Asian American to hold this position. She was confirmed unanimously by the Senate and sworn into office within hours of horrific murders in Georgia that occurred amidst growing public awareness of a wave of violence targeting Asian Americans. 

Tai’s smooth confirmation process to the top trade position could signal a shift in U.S. trade policy and the politics of U.S. foreign policy in important, largely unrecognized ways. The tone and substance of Tai’s confirmation hearings were less rancorous than several other Biden nominee hearings. They were focused on the tough, big picture challenge America now wrestles with: how to adapt the country’s overall political economy in a changing world. There’s a bipartisan effort to rethink trade from different ideological perspectives.  That’s a positive, long overdue trend. 

In the decades since the end of the Cold War, discussions about America’s foreign and international economic policies became increasingly disconnected from domestic politics and economic policies at home. Political leaders did not engage in the proactive policymaking and politics necessary to ensure American international economic policy remained linked to the economic fates of the average Americans. More often than not, America’s international economic policy seemed intended, in the words of current National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, to “make the world safe for corporate investment.”

Donald Trump broke taboos in many realms, and one lasting impact Trump’s four years will be toppling the shibboleths that guided trade policy for decades. Economic nationalism is here to stay, but with a new, revamped look that puts workers ahead of big corporations. As James Traub recently wrote, the Biden Administration’s focus on advancing a foreign policy for the middle class is a revolution, and Biden appears poised to take on the task of competing with China, albeit with a much different set of tactics.

In a panel last summer at the Center for American Progress, Tai explained why it was essential to think about trade and China in a new way that focused on domestic support.  America faces stiff competition from China, and China is not going away. “One of the most important lessons is to have robust political support within the Congress and with the American people in terms of what we are going to do on trade,” Tai said.

At the time, Tai characterized Trump’s approach on China as incomplete and mostly focused on defensive measures such as countering unfair trade practices and enforcing trade rights. Her constructive criticism was that America was not doing enough to go on the offense: what we are doing to make ourselves, our workers, our companies, and allies faster and nimbler.  How she said what she said was distinctive from the tone of most of the political debates ahead of last year’s elections, and that tone matters a lot more than many people recognize, especially on foreign policy these days.

Building a new U.S. policy on China, trade, and international economic policy in a way that forges rather than fragments political coalitions at home is vital. Competitors and adversaries seek to exploit America’s divisions, and as a recent U.S. intelligence analysis highlighted, key countries seek to induce paralysis and confusion inside America.  Our divisions are put America at a strategic disadvantage.

Most Americans see China as a top competitor in the economic and political arenas, and there is a strong degree of support for investing in America’s ability to compete in the world. Trade policy remains a contentious political issue, but recent measures of public sentiment find majorities in support of trade broadly speaking. Americans need to hear a plan from their leaders on how trade and broader economic ties with the rest of the world will create jobs and benefit American workers, not just large corporations or wealthy investors.

Tai’s path to her new job as America’s trade negotiator offers an important lesson on the politics of foreign policy, and people should take note outside of the business and economic pages. Tai, a veteran government trade lawyer who built a strong reputation for working with Democrats and Republicans alike, breaks the most recent mold of hyper-partisan picks for important jobs in U.S. economic and foreign policy over the past few years. Bipartisan unity on one nomination doesn’t matter all that much in and of itself, but the way Tai navigated the complicated internal political currents could offer a hopeful sign for a new brand of politics in U.S. foreign policy that could actually strengthen America’s advantage in the world.

Hardline ideological voices have worked hard to divide America on a range of national security questions. Many of these people could learn from Tai’s approach, especially those who have already taken to sulking about the first two months of Biden’s foreign policy

By all accounts, Tai focused on building relationship capital across the aisle in Washington as a means to get things done. Instead of publicly roasting people with different views from hers, she rolled up her sleeves and used her Congressional staff position to work with the Trump administration on the re-write of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, among other things. While advising Democrats, she actually did things during the Trump years that impacted the direction of a Republican administration, all without posturing on cable television or Twitter or leaking documents, media tactics that have come to distort politics and destroy relationship capital needed to get things done. Imagine that! 

No doubt, Tai benefited from this unique moment in American’s politics on China and trade, getting support from pro-worker Democrats, pro-business Republicans, and growing China skeptics on both sides of the aisle.  But her style of building relationships seems to have mattered a lot. 

Congressman Kevin Brady, a Republican representing Texas, introduced Tai at her Senate hearing nomination, saying he was proud to support her and stressing that “trade is a bipartisan priority and our policies are only successful when there is a true partnership between the executive branch and Congress.”

This unique moment of bipartisanship on trade and China policy may not last very long. But looking for ways to build on it and extend it to other tough areas of U.S. national security policy like the Middle East, Russia, and immigration might be worth the effort.  But that requires more people rolling up their sleeves and trying to get things done in the real world like Katherine Tai did.