May 7, 2019

By Alan Tonelson

I’ve often struggled to decide whether America’s dreadful trade policies over recent decades have stemmed more from incompetence (as President Trump sometimes charges) or corruption in the form of politicians and diplomats shilling for offshoring business interests or the often economically clueless national security community (as Mr. Trump also sometimes charges).

A report from Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post (which still publishes mostly reliable material even though the city is now part of China) didn’t settle the matter for me. But it once more valuably reminded that their country’s national interests have rarely topped U.S. trade negotiators’ priority lists. Why else would these officials have allowed themselves to be duped by the series of transparently cynical ruses and deceptions from their foreign interlocutors that they themselves describe in the article?

Correspondent Finbar Bermingham makes clear that his aim was to show how major “complications that can arise from issues of language, interpretation and translation during negotiations” and that as a result, “trying to iron out arguments over words, phrases or even grammar can be ‘worse than pulling teeth.’” Instead, what he (and the “experienced negotiators” he interviewed) demonstrated was how easily they could be snookered – and how thoroughly they either forgot or ignored America’s decisive leverage in all these dealings.

Take Elena Bryan. According to this 17-year veteran of trade negotiations with the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), “it’s very hard to enforce anything under the Chinese because their system is both complicated and relatively opaque, and there aren’t that many Mandarin speakers around that have the requisite technical trade and legal skills.”

But with its new tariff hike threat (which has the Chinese scurrying back to Washington to try to restart talks), the Trump administration has just suggested how easily this allegedly formidable challenge can be overcome: Tell the Chinese to get serious – and work with standard English – or they get higher tariffs imposed on their goods heading for the U.S. market that their economy desperately needs to produce adequate growth and employment.

Ditto for the claim by Bruce Hirsh, “assistant USTR for Japan and South Korea under former US president Barack Obama,” that “Haggling over individual words was 90 per cent of the game. How much of that was a language and translation issue and how much of that was just the actual negotiation over the substance is hard to say.”

Indeed, if anything, Hirsh’s position – and that of his boss – was even less acceptable, since both Japan and South Korea have even less economic leverage over the United States than China, and they also depend on American nuclear guarantees for their defense. As soon as they started haggling over words, Hirsh should have walked out of the room and urged his President to lower the tariff boom.

Nicole Bevins Collinson, “a textiles negotiator for the USTR in the 1990s,” inadvertently let readers know just how pathetic such excuse-making can become:

“The issue of commas and where they’re placed, and whether you use the words ‘and’ or ‘or’ were always big sticking issues. The other big thing was ‘may’ and ‘shall’. In some languages, those words are the same – or maybe they would just tell us that. What we thought was ‘shall’, they translated into ‘may’ and we were told we can’t use the word ‘may.’”

No wonder the American textile industry has struggled so mightily in the face of often predatory global competition and grew only about a fifth as fast in real terms as U.S. manufacturing overall during the 1990s.

Another type of nonsense-enabling was served up by Jean Heilman Grier, “who between the USTR and US Department of Commerce, spent 25 years negotiating and advising on trade agreements for the US government.”

Grier told Bermingham that “The Japanese…prefer more ‘conceptual’ text. ‘They don’t want the exactitude that we’re often looking for. So that’s where you can kind of get into problems with some of the translations.’” Talk about a great stalling tactic, especially when the folks on the other side of the table seem too happy to play along.

About the kindest interpretation that can be put on this manifest incompetence is that these diplomatic veterans valued reaching any kind of deal, even a bad one, over risking a no-deal outcome. In the words of Mary Ryckman, “who spent 30 years with USTR negotiating a host of trade agreements,” “You have the ‘art of the being vague’ and you agree to be vague because you want to come to an agreement.”

Ryckman’s point underscores a critical truth about American trade diplomacy – the diplomats quoted above and most of their colleagues in the pre-Trump decades weren’t making trade policy. They were simply carrying out orders from the globalists above. So Ryckman, for example, can’t be blamed for the “agreement or bust” imperative she followed. That blunder was on the President at the time.

But the South China Morning Post piece also indicates that none of the officials quoted had the slightest problem with their instructions, even though they all but guaranteed failure from the U.S. standpoint, at least defined commonsense-ically. Despite decades of experience, and of clear failure to achieve the stated goals of their efforts (usually meaningful foreign market opening), they apparently were content to play the dupe. Whether witting or unwitting, though matters much more when it comes to the intentions and records of their superiors than to their own.

ALAN TONELSON
Alan Tonelson, a columnist for IndustryToday, is founder of the RealityChek blog (alantonelson.wordpress.com), which covers manufacturing, trade, the economy, and national security. He has written for many leading publications on these subjects and is the author of The Race to the Bottom (Westview Press, 2000).