United States Trade Representative Katherine Tai today delivered the 2023 Wenger Lecture at American University Washington College of Law and highlighted the Biden-Harris Administration’s efforts to write a new story on trade that is addressing today’s challenges and delivering results for more people across the American economy. Following her remarks, Ambassador Tai participated in a fireside chat with Professor Padideh Ala’i, Professor of Law and Director of International and Comparative Legal Studies at American University Washington College of Law.
Ambassador Tai’s remarks as prepared for delivery are below:
Good afternoon, everyone. I am excited to be here with you today, and my sincere thanks to Dean Fairfax, Professor Ala’i, and the Washington College of Law for inviting me to speak.
Being in a law school building is triggering some old memories for me, like being cold-called in class.
But I have been told that many of the students here could use a break as they approach finals season, so you are all off the hook for now.
It is very fitting to be here, an institution founded over 120 years ago by two women—Ellen Spencer Mussey and Emma Gillet.
At a time when scores of Americans were kept outside the mainstream of the legal profession, these pioneers believed that lawyers had a role to play in the development of our society, and they did something about it.
More than a century later, WCL is thriving as a driver of equality and justice, and you are doing your part to prepare our nation and society for a brighter future.
And we—the Biden Administration—are doing ours.
We are investing in American communities. We are writing a new story on trade, one that makes us more resilient, our economy more sustainable, and our results more inclusive.
Whether you have a college degree or not, whether you have five employees or five hundred, whether you are a small dairy farmer in Wisconsin or a steelworker in Pennsylvania—trade should work for more Americans and help build the economy from the bottom up and the middle out.
This is our worker-centered approach to trade, and it is at the heart of everything we are doing.
The United States is back on the world stage as a leader and committed partner—and in the Administration’s third year, we are executing the President’s vision for trade policy, and other countries are joining us.
Before we get to how we are getting the job done, it is important to note why we are doing what we are doing.
This audience knows the traditional approach to trade well, which prioritized aggressive liberalization and tariff elimination.
This approach produced significant benefits—massive increases in economic activity and historic reductions in poverty in some regions.
But we must also acknowledge that the focus on maximum efficiency above all else had significant costs and side effects.
Prosperity without inclusiveness contributed to rising inequality and wealth concentration.
Earlier this year, Oxfam reported that nearly two-thirds of all new wealth created since 2020 went to the richest 1%, almost twice as much as the bottom 99% of the world’s population. That is staggering.
Trade also played a role in shipping jobs overseas, which decimated manufacturing communities. And our supply chains became more dispersed and fragile.
All of this has fueled resentment and mistrust in global institutions and the international economic system here in the United States and elsewhere.
And this version of globalization—focused on low costs and weak regulation—is responsible for how economies like the People’s Republic of China came to control a number of key industries.
The PRC joined the World Trade Organization twenty years ago. But it has doubled down on its state-led, non-market economic model over time. And the PRC continues to use unfair, distortive trade policies and practices in pursuit of harmful and anticompetitive industrial policy objectives.
As a result, the PRC became a dominant supplier for many important goods and technologies.
This boosted the PRC’s exports and benefitted its businesses. But it also hurt U.S. workers and manufacturers—and those of other WTO Members—and caused trade imbalances on a global scale.
We all felt the effects of this dominance very directly during the pandemic.
The world scrambled to make and distribute personal protective equipment and other essential items. Used car prices shot up because of a chip shortage, and you had to wait weeks to get new household appliances.
Russia’s unjustified and illegal invasion of Ukraine further exposed and exacerbated these vulnerabilities. Energy costs skyrocketed thanks to Putin’s price hike, and food insecurity spiraled.
It is clear today—even to many who are accustomed to a more traditional approach to trade policy—that we must adapt to the realities of today’s global economy.
And in this new phase, we must address the PRC’s economic mercantilism—to ensure, as the President said in the State of the Union, that the United States is in the strongest position to compete with the PRC, or anyone else in the world.
That means making smart investments here at home to increase our own competitiveness. That also means investing in research and development and clean energy technology and strengthening our manufacturing base.
This is absolutely necessary if we are going to win the economic competition of the 21st century. Industrial policy and trade policy must work hand-in-hand.
After two years of historic economic growth and job creation, President Biden’s Investing in America agenda is rebuilding our economy even stronger than it was before, powered by American innovation and workers.
We are rebuilding our roads, bridges, and airports. Companies across the country are making historic investments to expand manufacturing here in the United States, and creating good-paying jobs, many of which don’t require a four-year degree.
We are leading the way in building a clean energy economy that will lower costs, strengthen our energy security, and meet our climate goals.
And communities that for too long were left out or left behind are seeing record small business growth and new economic opportunities.
These are groundbreaking down payments on our nation’s future.
But I want to emphasize that we are working with our partners—and not at their expense or at the expense of the most vulnerable.
That is the key theme of the Biden Administration’s new story on trade—strengthening our cooperation with like-minded economies to forge a fairer and more sustainable future for our people.
Because the economy is more than numbers—it is people. So, our economic policy must work for our people.
With that goal in mind, we are pursuing new and innovative initiatives with key partners around the world.
We settled longstanding disputes with the EU so that we can focus on our shared goals and priorities.
That includes negotiations on the Global Arrangement on Sustainable Steel and Aluminum—this proves that we can preserve the future of our steel industry and American jobs, in partnership with others.
Together, we’re moving ahead to create a market that rewards fair trade and promotes clean manufacturing and good jobs.
We also created the Trade and Technology Council to deepen transatlantic investment ties, tackle pressing issues like supply chain security, and address economic coercion and non-market policies and practices by the PRC and others.
Speaking of the EU, I also want to note that, after we resolved trade irritants that we inherited, we opened markets for U.S. rice, wheat, corn, shellfish, and beef exports to the EU.
USTR’s nimble team continues to open key markets around the world for U.S. ag products.
With Japan, we have a new safeguard agreement to export more U.S. beef. And just last week, we announced that U.S. producers will be able to export more ethanol to Japan.
We also opened access for pork and pecan exports to India, which were longstanding issues.
As you can see, we are continuing to secure real wins, and U.S. agricultural exports reached a record $202 billion last year. And we will continue to fight aggressively on behalf of American farmers to ensure that they can compete and win on the global stage.
But we are also focusing on common sense, trade-facilitative measures. That includes tackling non-tariff barriers, which are real and can be more significant hurdles than tariffs, especially for our small-and-medium sized businesses.
I know we’re all getting a little hungry, but I’ll use potatoes as an example.
U.S. farmers have tried to export fresh potatoes to the entire Mexican market for a quarter of a century. High tariffs were not the problem—Mexico has no tariffs on our fresh potatoes. Rather, regulatory barriers were standing in the way.
But last year, our Administration finally resolved this issue, opening up new opportunities for U.S. potato growers.
A lot of what we are doing in Asia with the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework is focused on addressing similar non-tariff barriers to help our smaller companies compete and thrive in the region.
The IPEF is not just any traditional trade deal—it is our vision for how countries can collaborate to deliver real opportunities for our people.
Trade should work for the common good and help set responsible standards on labor, the environment, and other priorities that reflect American values. It should also promote fair and healthy cooperation that lifts up workers and communities, and that is the focus for IPEF.
We recently wrapped up our second negotiating round in Indonesia. We tabled text on a number of important issues during these rounds—including on labor, environment, trade facilitation, agriculture, digital trade, and good regulatory practices.
Our IPEF partners are on board to negotiate high-standard rules that can spur inclusive economic growth and resilience throughout the region. And we’ll continue the momentum during the next negotiating round in Singapore in May.
Speaking of resilience, I am proud of a recent agreement we concluded with Japan on critical minerals.
We’ve become too dependent on certain countries or regions for important inputs.
That is one reason why President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act into law last year—the largest investment in American history to address the climate crisis.
It will incentivize the manufacturing of clean energy technology here at home. It will also create good-paying jobs—in wind, solar, and electric vehicle manufacturing. And it will fortify and diversify the critical supply chains for clean energy products.
USTR engaged extensively with those partners who raised concerns with the law, including Japan.
The critical minerals agreement covers a slew of issues needed to bolster supply chains—like commitments on export duties, non-market policies, best practices on investment screening, and labor rights.
This agreement demonstrates that the United States can—and will—work with our trading partners to promote our collective resilience and security. And that is why we have also started negotiating a similar agreement with the EU.
There are other examples of how we are working bilaterally to pursue common goals.
Taiwan is a vibrant democracy in East Asia, and last June, we started the groundbreaking initiative on the U.S. – Taiwan 21st Century Trade Initiative.
Another important region for us is sub-Saharan Africa, and last July, we launched the U.S. – Kenya Strategic Trade and Investment Partnership.
I believe the future is Africa, and this is a part of how we are deepening our partnership with the continent.
But we know that new commitments without enforcement only adds to the lack of trust and confidence in trade. That’s why our Administration has also been laser-focused on holding our trading partners accountable.
And it really starts with enforcing commitments under the U.S. – Mexico – Canada Agreement.
The USMCA has a mechanism that allows us to bring cases against specific facilities that do not respect the rights of workers to freedom of association and collective bargaining. We have been using that mechanism diligently.
Over the past year or so, we secured wins for workers at several different facilities. And we are seeing real change and success for workers and independent unions in Mexico.
Several facilities agreed to new collective bargaining agreements.
Major salary increases at GM Silao, Saint-Gobain, and a Panasonic facility. Safer working conditions at Teksid.
And then I want to tell you about an auto component facility, Manufacturas VU.
We brought a first case that led to a free and fair vote to unionize. But then conditions got worse, so we brought a second case.
And this time, the Government of Mexico will initiate sanctions proceedings, support training on collective bargaining issues, and ensure that complaints about anti-union threats and violence are properly investigated and addressed.
As you can see, we are empowering workers through a trade agreement. This has a real impact on working peoples’ lives—elevating labor standards drives a race to the top and reduces the incentive to ship jobs overseas.
Our focus on enforcement under the USMCA doesn’t stop with labor issues. We are also pressing Canada to ensure U.S. dairy farmers are treated fairly, and that Mexico addresses our concerns with the energy sector and with agricultural biotechnology.
I know WCL has an excellent human rights law program, so you would be glad to know that we are working with the EU, Japan, Canada, and Mexico to eliminate forced labor from global supply chains.
Through all of this, we are focusing on how we can make trade beneficial for more people, and how we can help them compete and thrive through fair competition.
These values also apply to how we work in the multilateral space, specifically with the World Trade Organization.
We are committed to the WTO, and we are leading the way to transform the institution so that it can better promote basic shared values—like fair competition, transparency, and the respect for the rule of law—and address pressing issues like the climate crisis.
There have been some promising steps recently.
We delivered meaningful outcomes during the last ministerial meeting, the first in over ten years—including on COVID vaccines, fisheries subsidies, and food security.
We are also partnering with developing country Members on issues that matter to them—including trade facilitation, agricultural trade, and e-commerce.
This is important progress, but there is much more to do, including on the essential security exception and dispute settlement reform.
We—along with many other WTO Members—have adopted a “reform by doing” approach.
We are collecting and sharing ideas at the committee level, and through this process, we are developing a suite of reforms to achieve greater inclusivity and to make committee work more relevant and responsive.
I have been clear that the United States will continue to play an active role in the WTO reform effort. We are diving straight in and welcome others in this discussion.
Trade policy cannot prevent or solve all the wrongs in the world, but it can help more people—both at home and abroad—share the benefits of increasing economic growth.
It can help restore and build trust with different sectors of the economy—the women entrepreneurs, the minority-owned small businesses, the youth and students—so that their voices and priorities also help shape the tomorrow they will live in.
Sixty years ago, President Kennedy delivered a commencement address on this very campus, and he spoke of something that remains very relevant today.
He said we must pursue “genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children—not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women—not merely peace in our time but peace for all time.”
President Kennedy’s Special Representative for Trade Negotiations, Christian Herter—who was the first U.S. Trade Representative—said at his swearing in ceremony that he would carry out his responsibilities “in a way to bring together the nations of the free world so that they, in concert, may become a great force for freedom…”
Herter understood that trade has an undeniable role in promoting freedom and sustaining humanity around the world.
It is also meaningful that USTR just celebrated its 60th year, so in a way, this is our homecoming—to put humanity back into trade, to live up to Kennedy’s vision, to pursue inclusive prosperity not merely for our time, but for all time.
I want to challenge all of you to expand your view on what trade is capable of.
Let us not be content with reruns of old. Let us write a new script—for a brighter tomorrow, for a better life for all our people, for a stronger Union.
To read Ambassador Tai’s full remarks, please click here.