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The Case for Katherine Tai as the Next USTR

Trade has often been relegated to second-tier status by Democratic administrations.

This is unfortunate, as so many issues that are paramount to the Democratic Party platform are inextricably linked to trade directly and indirectly. As the largest consumer economy in the world, the ability to extract concessions from trading partners and influence the terms of trade with the rest of the world cannot be understated. The U.S. has the unique ability to change the rules of global trade in a way that levels the playing field, creating opportunities for high-quality American jobs, while raising standards of labor and environmental stewardship from our trading partners.

The Biden administration needs to see trade as a way to lift all ships and provide economic opportunity for all. If previous administrations were often criticized for trade policies that many felt sacrificed U.S. economic and worker equities in favor of foreign policy prerogatives, the Trump administration has been criticized for a unilateral approach in trade that has alienated traditionally allied partners.

We need a leader who can strike the appropriate balance between confrontation and partnership, between enforcement and cooperation.

The Biden administration comes into office with strong labor and environmental support that could help to promote a positive trade agenda and lead the way in enduring stakeholder driven trade initiatives. Trade preferences and trade agreements can be effective tools to improve labor and environmental standards globally and to make our workers more competitive. These tools are important to our U.S. industries that have also made investments in jobs that pay living wages and adhere to higher environmental standards. We need to effectively incorporate and enforce strong labor and environmental standards modeled on the new obligations and through the new mechanisms like those that were incorporated into the USMCA agreement. These types of standards can make an important difference in promoting a more inclusive prosperity across North and Central America through our trade agreements, and to the Caribbean and Africa through trade programs like Haiti HOPE/HELP and AGOA.

We need to pivot supply chains away from those who don’t play by the rules to create opportunities and bolster investment in our trade agreement and trade preference partner countries. Further, the most important trade issue facing the incoming administration; is of course China. Not only does the Biden administration inherit a series of Section 301 actions and a failed “trade agreement” with China, it does so at a time when the “go it alone” approach has created significant challenges to building the kind of international coalition necessary to hold China accountable. It’s long overdue, and we need to make systemic reforms in trade to ensure a level playing field for our manufacturers, workers, free trade agreements and trade preference partners.

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The ideal USTR would actually be a respected and experienced trade lawyer who has worked both inside and outside of government and understands not only the legal nuance but also has the ability to navigate the politics without getting into the fray, and commands respect from both sides of the aisle. Someone who is ready on day one to take the helm on the complicated challenges ahead and forge a new path. Someone who is widely respected on the Hill and with key stakeholders–who is politically savvy and is steeped in policy and understands the complicated nature of the road forward.

Fortunately, just such a candidate has emerged.

Katherine Tai, the Ways and Means Chief Trade Counsel who previously served as USTR’s Chief Counsel for China Trade Enforcement, has unprecedented support in the Congress. This reflects her strong leadership to bring competing interests together to tackle some of our largest trade challenges, including leading efforts to renegotiate the NAFTA agreement. Tai has an extensive background and an unblemished record of working to protect worker rights and winning cases at the WTO. She understands the potential and the limitations of the mechanisms and forums that have been a part of our trading system. She has the imagination, courage and good will required to work with our stakeholders, partners, and allies to formulate new and more effective trade tools for the 21st century. She is held in the highest esteem by all those who have had the pleasure to work with her, and she is without question an exceptional candidate. Her résumé reads like the job description one would create if you were imagining the ideal candidate.

We urge the incoming President-elect and his transition team to choose a dedicated professional and give Tai the opportunity to show the American people how global trade can work for them.


Gail W. Strickler is the president of global trade for Brookfield Associates LLC., a Washington D.C.-based consulting group that helps organizations, governments and businesses develop and coordinate their global trade policy. Strickler served as the Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Textiles and Apparel from 2009 through the completion of the TPP in October 2015.  

Rosa Whitaker is a visionary entrepreneur, philanthropist and builder of a leading consultancy that delivers global business engagement and private sector investments across Africa. She is a corporate strategist with a multifaceted career of accomplishment that includes service as the first Assistant US Trade Representative for Africa in the Administrations of both Former Presidents William J. Clinton and George W. Bush. Her career also includes tenure as a U.S. career diplomat, trade negotiator, thought leader and advisor to CEOs and heads of state. 

Her firm, The Whitaker Group (TWG), founded in 2003, is known for positioning companies to be forces for good with a clear eye on both great results for the business and the communities in which they serve and operate.