US Trade Representative Katherine Tai on modernizing the transatlantic partnership

Event transcript

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Katherine Tai
United States Trade Representative


Frederick Kempe
President and CEO, Atlantic Council

Introductory Remarks

Mark Gitenstein
US Ambassador to the European Union

MARK GITENSTEIN: Katherine, Fred, ladies and gentlemen, to those here in the room and those joining online, thank you for being with us today. 

This week, we mark the eightieth anniversary of what General Eisenhower called, quote, “the great and noble undertaking,” unquote—the allied invasions at Normandy. D-Day marked the beginning of the end for fascism and the victory of transatlantic democracies. The men and women fighting against autocracy in Europe were fighting for values that continue to cement the transatlantic relationship today. These values were outlined by President Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in the Atlantic Charter in 1941, which laid out allied war goals and hopes for the postwar world. 

Roosevelt and Churchill proclaimed the ultimate allied goal was that, quote, “all people in all lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want, and with the object of securing for all improved labor standards, economic advancement, and social security,” close quote. The Atlantic Charter was a powerful vision of transformation, a postwar world free from authoritarian tyranny and secure in peaceful economic prosperity. It was also a powerful recognition that economic security is inseparable from the health of our democracies. 

Today, eighty years later, the United States and Europe sit at a similar moment of transformation. Transformation in our economic security, as Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine threatens the peace of Europe. Transformation in our economy as a new generation of green technologies, and manufacturing, and computing set a new standard for our economies. And perhaps most important, a transformation in our society as anger and economic inequality, and hollowed out industrial bases, fuel rising cynicism and disillusion with our democracies. 

On both sides of the Atlantic, populist leaders with easy answers to hard problems promote a new ideology hostile to democracy, aided by authoritarian leaders eager to weaken our societies. As European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen put it, quote, “a new league of authoritarians is working in concert to tear up the international rule-based order, to redraw maps across different continents, and to stretch our democracies to the breaking point,” close quote. As US Ambassador to the EU, I’ve seen the growing resolve of leaders in the US and the EU—the two largest democratic free market systems in the world—to respond to this new challenge. 

In this context, people in Brussels and here in Washington have told me the old orthodoxy about free trade and free markets must change. Our current policies show the old system is not working for ordinary citizens on both sides of the Atlantic. 

Indeed, discontent with that system is fueling populist anger and enabling authoritarians to influence and disrupt our societies. As Jake Sullivan pointed out in his speech at Brookings last year, quote, “This moment demands that we forge a new consensus,” close quote. If we are to strengthen our democracies we must change our oldest assumptions about trade policy. We do not have a choice. 

As Katherine has said many times, trade policy is not siloed from national security. It is a key part of ensuring not just prosperity for our citizens but the health of our democracy. As Jake said, this is about making long-term investments in sectors vital to our national well-being. 

This administration has outlined bold new steps for a twenty-first century economy that broadly benefits our citizens, strengthens our democracy, and works with our partners to do the same. 

In so doing we look back to a tradition outlined by FDR and Churchill four generations ago, a recognition that by ensuring economic prosperity we inoculate our societies from the temptations of authoritarian populism that then, as now, threaten to undermine democratic societies.

It is up to us to finish the work that FDR and Churchill started to create a new vision for a transformational world, one that leads us to renew strength for democracies on both sides of the Atlantic. 

That is what Katherine and I are hard at work on together in the European Union and in reshaping and modernizing the transatlantic bond, especially as it relates to trade policy. She is my sister in arms. 

FREDERICK KEMPE: Ambassador Gitenstein, thank you so much for that. 

The great noble undertaking a similar moment of transformation, a new league of authoritarianism. 

This is really rich material, Ambassador Tai, and thank you for being with us today. Ambassador Gitenstein’s remarks underscored what we’ve been trying to say at the Atlantic Council for a long time. We had Brian Deese here from the White House introducing the new industrial policy. We had, you know, Secretary Janet Yellen here from Treasury where she introduced the term friendshoring.

And a lot of this conversation is taking place here because from the very beginning we’ve seen geoeconomics and geopolitics as inseparable. They are two sides of the same coin. 

I want to greet some people who are here from our board: Kostas Pantazopoulos, George Lund, Ankit Desai, and Chris Fetzer. We have the Swedish and the Austrian and the Greek ambassadors here.

If I’ve missed any of you it is not meant to be a slight of your country or your board membership. But thank you for being here. 

Before I dive in I want to endeavor to get as many questions from the audience as possible both from our in-person group—and you’ll see a microphone over there. When I start calling for questions you can line up there on your left side of the—my right side of the room.

And from the audience online I’ve got that in front of me and you can put your question at So

And so my first question—let’s anchor this in history—we, the Atlantic Council, have been calling this a fourth inflection point period—at the end of World War I period, end of World War II, end of the Cold War and now, hopefully, at some point at the end of the war in Ukraine, et cetera.

We all know that we got a lot of things tragically wrong at the end of World War I. Ended up with fascism, millions of dead, the Holocaust, World War II. And at the end of World War II we got things more right than wrong building the institutions that serve us today, staying in places where we might have come home at a different time in history, working with our previous adversaries Japan and Germany to build a new world order.

So let’s start there. You wrote about that connection last week, and if you haven’t read this piece in the Financial Times it’s really—a really remarkable, powerful piece that invoked the Atlantic Charter. I think some were surprised by that connection. Some might be surprised why we’re talking to you a few days ahead of D-Day, I guess less surprising a few days ahead of the eightieth anniversary of Bretton Woods. But how does trade fit in with national security? And when you look at these other inflection points in history, how in your mind does trade tie with our shared history with our allies, which we didn’t get so perfectly after World War I, better after World War II, and right now up for grabs?

KATHERINE TAI: Well, thank you so much, Fred, and it’s wonderful to be here with you. And I want to thank Ambassador Gitenstein, my very good friend Mark, my brother in arms. That’s really a compliment. We have been working hard together on the transatlantic relationship.

I couldn’t be more pleased to be here with you, Fred, at the Atlantic Council. And the way that you’ve set up this question really reflects what a wonderful organization you run here and with the history, but provide context for this particular conversation and where we are today in the history that’s unfolding and being written every single day.

I am the trade representative. And to your point, it may be odd to be having this particular conversation on the eve of the D-Day eightieth anniversary and Bretton Woods, but I think that your introduction really does a better job than I could in making the case that as history unfolds, that everything is connected—that economics is connected to politics, which is connected to national security, which is connected to the relationship between countries, which is connected to the relationship between people and citizens with their governments.

And so to look at where we are today, and to assess the successes and the shortcomings of where we’ve come from, I think one of the successes is, undoubtedly, if you look at the World Bank data on GDP, growth, over these last several decades, you see the numbers going up and up and up around the world. But certainly, as of today, there is a sense of anxiety and insecurity and a lack of confidence that seems to be going through every economy here, in Europe, and around the world. So what’s going on?

To your question about how economics is connected to national security, what I would say is if we go back to, say—let’s just pick a date in the beginning era that you’ve identified—1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt takes office as president of the United States. And it’s the spring of 1933 when German democracy comes to an end in that post-World War I period and fascism has risen and taken over.

FREDERICK KEMPE: And people forget this. March 1933, Hitler and Roosevelt both come to power within days of each other.

KATHERINE TAI: That’s right.


KATHERINE TAI: That’s right. And FDR has absorbed and has lived through the years of the Great Depression coming into the 1930s, and what is very much on his mind is that connection between economic depravation and the willingness of people in times and circumstances of despair to give up their freedoms and to abandon their democracy. And so you see FDR lead in the establishment of his New Deal policies. Over the course of his terms in office, you see as we go through—we go through the 1930s, we enter into World War II, he takes us out of World War II, that the approach that he’s taken—which is really to address the economic security of working people—that he starts to internationalize that through the Atlantic Charter and through the principles that are then applied to the negotiation of the Bretton Woods institutions. The original vision for trade in the Bretton Woods institutions went above and beyond the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the GATT, which is what ended up making it across the finish line. The original vision to pair with the World Bank and the IMF was an International Trade Organization, the ITO charter, that had tariff pieces that were coupled with enforceable and meaningful worker standards based on a goal of full employment for all members, environmental equities, and also antimonopoly provisions—to address the fact that it’s not just the private sector companies that can behave as monopolies and distort economic opportunity, but entire countries. At the time you will also think about in the 1940s coming out of World War II the creation and the rise of the Soviet Union on the eastern front of Europe. 

So it’s through that lens that we are looking at the particular challenges that we’re facing today, and examining the tools and the means for accomplishing the goals that we need to set out for ourselves. Those goals are actually very similar if not the same goals that we had in the 1930s and the 1940s, that were embodied by the ITO charter combined with the Truman doctrine and the Marshall Plan. And it was based on a partnership and a collaboration between the United States and Europe across the Atlantic to build a world based on economic opportunity, fair competition, and democracy. 

FREDERICK KEMPE: What a rich opening. So, as you wrote in your piece, and I’ll quote this, the stakes are high. Quote: “The stakes are high. As Oxford historian Patricia Clavin has documented, democracies failed to find common ground on international economic issues in the 1930s, with devastating consequences.” To what extent do you think we’ve properly viewed and understood the dangers now? Do you think the dangers are as sharp as they were in the 1930s? And to what extent have we done enough thus far? 

KATHERINE TAI: I think absolutely. Now, I wasn’t around in the 1930s. But I think that this is an intergenerational project. For those who do remember the times of FDR, and the immediate legacy of the New Deal policies, those who remember World War II, those who have come through those years, I think that there is a collective project for us to properly put what we’re experiencing today in this historical context. And to remind ourselves of what helped us to succeed the first time around, where we may have gone off track—because I have a little bit of a diagnosis here to share with you—and how to get ourselves back on track. 

Because I think that for those leaders in the United States and in Europe who experienced the significant trauma and tragedy of the world wars, that what they won through those experiences was a depth of wisdom that even for us, having gone through the years of COVID, going through the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I think would really benefit from tapping into. And I think that it is that more holistic approach to domestic and international economic and security principles that can be very helpful to us on a transatlantic basis for imagining the bringing about of yet another new world order, as you’ve described in your introduction, that can correct for where we went wrong, but also harness the elements where we were successful. 

FREDERICK KEMPE: It’s really interesting. Because you’re really speaking to a danger we have right now, which is a deficit of that kind of memory because, of course, even Joe Biden was two years old at the end of World War II. And so the memory we have of what goes wrong, those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. We all know that. This is a year of elections across the world. You’ve also brought up the connection between trade and democracy. Could you explain that to us? 

And more than 50 percent of humanity is voting this year, representing nearly two-thirds of global GDP. And the ambassador in his opening talked about and quoted Ursula von der Leyen on a new league of authoritarianism. As something of a student of the 1930s, I look at the relationship with Hitler, Mussolini, the Japanese, not nearly as close as the relationship is right now of Putin, Xi, North Korea, Iran, interestingly enough. So talk about what role trade plays in this contest of democracy and autocracy. 

KATHERINE TAI: Wonderful. So here’s where I’ll get into a bit of our diagnosis in terms of where our successes have come up short. And I think that what I would do is go back to that original vision for the ITO charter. Understand that it was more than just the GATT. And imagine what would have happened if the ITO charter had made it across the finish line. Now, one historical note, the ITO charter in full didn’t succeed. And it was one Senator Taft who really put the spoke in the—spoke in the wheel. And was the same Senator Taft who had rolled back a lot of the New Deal worker protections that FDR had put into place. 

Now, what was left on the cutting room floor? The enforceable, meaningful labor standards, the environmental standards, and then also the antimonopoly rules. So instead, what you ended up with was a tariff program and a program of trade liberalization standing on its own, without the safeguards addressing the interests of working people, of the planet, and of ensuring a healthy and vital amount of economic opportunity that could happen within economies and between economies. 

So, over time what you have found is this era and this version of globalization, fueled only by a pursuit of trade liberalization, and the limits of what that trade liberalization has been able to accomplish. Now, I think it’s created a lot of efficiencies. It’s maximized on a lot of revenue, minimized on a lot of costs. But it’s incurred a different set of costs. One, when you look at the geopolitical, geoeconomic perspective—let’s look at supply chains. How incredibly fragile we now realize they are, how much concentration is reflected in certain supply chains in terms of single source, single country, single region supply, the leverage of certain regions, certain countries in dominating entire sectors or entire portions and links in a supply chain, and the kind of geopolitical tension that that’s fueling. So that’s one example. 

Another example is a shortcoming of this version of globalization, that is based only on economic liberalization, tariff liberalization, what we might call as a laissez-faire or neoliberal system, resulting in a competition between countries and jurisdictions that’s built on pitting our workers against each other, pitting our middle classes against each other, creating this kind of a zero-sum competition for economic and industrial growth opportunity. And the real question before us now is how do we move towards a future and a different form of globalization that preserves some of the positives of what we’ve experienced, while correcting for what is turning out to be a very unsustainable pathway on a geopolitical, geostrategic level, as well as on a human and a planetary level?

FREDERICK KEMPE: I’m going to come back to that, because I’m interested in what kind of trade agreements fit into that. But let me come back to that. Let’s shift first to our Bretton Woods 2.0 Project, where we’re thinking about what are the next eighty years going to look like. As you’re talking in really broad strokes about a fascinating, quote/unquote, “new consensus,” are the current institutions fit to purpose, from climate change, supply chain vulnerability that you talked about, nonmarket economy policies, labor rights? And so do the rules of the road, including those at the WTO, need to be changed? Do the institutions need to be changed?

KATHERINE TAI: I think they need to be—they need to be well-loved. And like those that you love a lot, they need to be improved—and supported in growing and realizing their full potential, which may require some revamping and some education and investment.

So, you know, all of the Bretton Woods institutions and the UN itself, they’re all showing their age. The world today versus the world when they were created is very, very different. Now, that doesn’t—

FREDERICK KEMPE: And let’s not forget Bretton Woods was drawn up during the war as the war was unfolding.

KATHERINE TAI: That’s right. That’s right.

FREDERICK KEMPE: This is a very different time, eighty years older. Yeah.

KATHERINE TAI: It is—it is a very different time. And the balance of powers is also very different. And also, the modern era is also different. You know, look at the urgency that we feel around climate and the impacts that we are starting to see on a—on a seasonal basis with respect to what’s happening on the planet. But then, also, the technological change that’s happening—which, by the way, there’s—there have been technological advancements all through history. And I think what we’re going through may echo some of what we’ve experienced before, but the pace of change and the type of change I think is—feels rather unique.

Now, in light of all of this, I think that these institutions still absolutely have an important role to play, if not an even more important role to play today than they did in the past. But certainly in terms of the detail and in terms of the specifics of the architecture of these institutions and the substance of the texts—the legal texts that hold them together, I think they absolutely need a lot of love and revisitation.

FREDERICK KEMPE: I think in the parlance of our day it’s called tough love. But where would you start? What would be your highest priority in taking this on?

KATHERINE TAI: So I’m the trade representative, so it’s—they say if you’ve got a hammer, then everything looks like a nail, sort of. So, you know, as the trade representative, I’m always going to start with the trade conversation.

But again, I think I’ll just bring this back, which is the trade conversation today is really imperiled if we only consider that we can talk about trade. Where I started this conversation was acknowledging, as is implied in your introduction, that everything is connected. And so I think that where you need to start is the breaking out of the siloization of policy, of institutions, so breaking down those silos and connecting the conversation. Which is why, as the trade representative, I’m really so delighted to be sitting here on the stage with you, not being a trade expert but being expert in so many other things.

Where to start? I think that we’ve already started in the Biden administration. And it’s the Biden administration’s approach to economics which is also, if you listen to President Biden talk, very much married up with his vision for America’s role in the world. So we start with a really robust and real program of investing in the United States, whether that’s through infrastructure, where we had mostly been coasting on the significant investments that were made during the Eisenhower administration; investing in ourselves and our infrastructure; investing in our industries, the CHIPS and Science Act; investing in our industrial growth and the industries of the future, the Inflation Reduction Act. Those types of investments, paired up with our trade program—which includes our tariff programs, where we’ve taken actions recently to ensure that the tariffs and the investments can work together to reinvigorate American industrial growth, manufacturing capacity—all right, so that’s one piece.

The second piece, investing in our people—and that’s our people as workers—empowering them, educating them. In trade as well, we talk about building out our middle classes, finding ways not to pit our workers against each other. In the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement, we’ve got a mechanism where that’s exactly what we’re doing. We’re working with Mexico to scrutinize individual facilities where we have reason to believe that worker rights of freedom of association and collective bargaining are being denied, and ensuring that Mexican workers can exercise the rights guaranteed to them by Mexican law and by the agreement itself. To this day, we have directly benefited more than thirty thousand workers in Mexico. By empowering those workers, we are helping to even the playing field with American workers.

And then I’d say the third piece of this is looking at the entire economic ecosystem here at home and also in the world context, and ensuring that there is broad-based, healthy economic competition—that there is economic opportunity that we are creating across the economy; that our commitment to taking on monopolies and recognizing that monopolies don’t just manifest as companies but also as countries. Taking us back to that FDR understanding, that postwar understanding, that one of the major challenges we would be facing is with the Soviet Union and the communist world, with those state-command economies having to compete against entire economies all at once. All of those pieces coming together in our trade policy as well, and understanding that taking on a foreign monopoly is about being consistent. You have to enforce competition here at home while you are also enforcing competition and opportunities around the world.

FREDERICK KEMPE: Fascinating. I’m going to ask—and this is really disciplining myself because I have a hundred questions I’d like to ask—I’m going to ask two more questions: one on digital trade, one on Europe. I’m sure in the Q&A we’ll get to some more on China as well. And then I’m going to turn to the audience. So I’ll look to this and I’ll look to this, and I already see a few coming in here.

So FDR didn’t need to deal with digital trade. Bretton Woods didn’t have to deal with digital trade. You’ve seen some significant shifts in US digital trade policy, including withdrawing proposals for digital trade chapters focusing on things like free flow of data in institutions like the WTO. One of the questions we got in from the audience was: What are you doing on the promote side of the trade agenda, particularly on digital and AI issues, where there is a hunger from many of our trading partners to align with the US? And this partner said that there is a perception of a US withdrawal on digital trade over the last year in Europe, Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Africa, where China continues to announce new projects on cross-border data transfers and AI partnerships. So that’s a big, broad question, but it’s really: What’s your view of where digital trade policy fits in here? And then what’s your answer to these criticisms?

KATHERINE TAI: Great. OK. So when we started negotiating things in this digital arena, we called them e-commerce provisions. And I think that the first e-commerce chapter dates back to Singapore, which we’re just celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the Singapore Free Trade Agreement. Now, if you think back to 2004 and you think back to what e-commerce was, in 2004 I think Amazon was still mostly just an online bookseller. So what we were doing in our trade agreements was—through a very traditional approach to traditional trade transactions of goods moving across borders, we were looking at what could you do in a trade agreement to help to ensure the facilitation of those traditional types of transactions. And that’s really how we thought about data flows—that, you know, the data that flows in an e-commerce transaction is the stuff that helps to facilitate the transaction: the information that needs to be sent from one place, maybe across a border, to another place; the economic information, the payments information; and then how to get it back—how to get the good across the border.

Fast forward twenty years. It’s 2024. When we’re talking about data, it’s not just about the bits and bytes that help to facilitate a traditional goods transaction anymore; data is the game itself. And that couldn’t have been more clear than with the advent of ChatGPT-4 a couple months ago, where suddenly people are wowed by, you know, please—I think there was an exercise for us where we were—we were asked to put prompts into ChatGPT-4. And so there were a number of us in the administration, and I said, oh, I know, I know; how about ask the generative AI to write a poem about Bidenomics in the style of e.e. cummings. And any of you who pay for ChatGPT-4 and the paid service, go ahead and try it. What comes out is kind of amazing and maybe even a little bit beautiful. It’s very, very eerie, right?

And so that started a lot of, I don’t know, just this incredible curiosity about what the heck is this thing and how was it made? And it turns out that it had—it had fed on basically all the data that has been created and was put out there in the internet since the beginning of the internet and maybe even before with, you know, published works, right? That is then processed through incredibly powerful computers that only a couple of companies are powerful and rich enough to have access to. 

And in the context of this awareness about data—and then you can get over to the data brokers and how much of your data you’re generating every day that’s available for others to buy and sell. And for those who are buying it, real questions about what they’re using it for. We start to realize that, wow, as we break out of our trade silo, we’re appreciating that our traditional approach to what we’re now calling digital trade actually has implications for so much more. Isn’t it time for us to hit pause on this, come back, reconnect with all of the other policy silos, break them down, talk to our Congress, talk to our industry, the bigs and also the littles, right? The companies and also the workers. The platforms, and also the creative content producers. And try to get our arms around what is actually happening here, and what is in the public interest?

Because that is not the question that has informed the proposals that we’ve developed over time. So what I would say is for all of those who are yearning for a leadership from the executive branch and USTR to tell everybody else what the answer is, my argument is the real leadership is in stepping back and saying: This is not an answer that is going to come from USTR alone. And that if that’s what you’re looking for, is the USTR-led answer to how we should be regulating tech and data, that is not going to be the right answer. This is, again, a project for our collective wisdom. And it’s only once we’ve achieved that wisdom—first here in the United States, and then with our trading partners—are we actually going to be assured of any kind of success that the world order we’re creating, that has rules for digital trade and technology, is going to support economic opportunity for working people and democracy. 

FREDERICK KEMPE: But, in short, hit pause at the moment on digital trade policy. Is that?

KATHERINE TAI: Pull back provisions that we already know are not fit for the times. And then engage, and learn, and talk to each other—including in forums like this—and put out the question, how should we be approaching this? And I’d say that, number one, it’s a domestic policy issue first. Before we bring it to the international realm, we’ve got to figure out what works for the United States. Also, what works for our democracy? At this moment in time, with all these elections going on and the amount of disinformation and active interference that’s happening through information systems that are being created by data and these distributional platforms, it is a really important time to be asking what is a pro-democracy approach to regulating technology?

FREDERICK KEMPE: So anyone in the audience who would like to see the Atlantic Council’s AI Code of Ethics in the voice of Shakespeare, I can send it to you—which I’ve worked on here. 

So quick, quick question on Europe. And then I’ve got a couple of questions here. And we’ll see if anyone stands up by the microphone. It’s a big question. I’m going to ask for a short answer. Which is, the overall status of US-European trade relationship. There’s tension over the Inflation Reduction Act still. There’s some frictions in US-EU trade left unresolved—steel and aluminum tariffs. One question here is, after an election, would that be something one could move on to? Some criticism of TTC that’s been long on tech but short on trade. What’s happening with the Europe-US relationship, the transatlantic relationship, that you’re happy with? What is you’re looking at and you’re saying, not very happy with that?

KATHERIEN TAI: OK. Great. So I know we’re right on the cusp of the eightieth anniversary of D-Day, which is really incredibly significant. In my service as US trade representative, we’re also coming on the third anniversary of President Biden’s first US-EU summit. So it happened in mid-June of 2021. It was the first summit he engaged in outside of the United States. He stopped in Cornwall for the G7 leaders meeting on his way to Brussels to meet with President von der Leyen and President Michel. And it was in the lead-up to that summit meeting that EVP Valdis Dombrovskis and I sat down and negotiated a truce on Boeing-Airbus. At that time, a seventeen-year-old set of disputes that really contributed to the breakdown of dispute settlement in Geneva, but also just a longstanding, very bitterly fought trade dispute between the United States and the EU. 

And we were gathered together at the summit waiting for the three presidents to emerge from their session, and getting to know each other. And EVP Dombrovskis and I were together with Secretary Raimondo and EVP Vestager. And Dombrovskis and I were feeling very good about what we had accomplished in creating space for the United States and the EU to come together to think about how we can be more strategic on large civil aircraft. And I asked—I remember, I asked that group of four. And I said, it’s really so important that we find a way to turn down the temperature between the United States and the EU, Washington and Brussels, and really focus on the fact that we have shared challenges, and we have a lot of shared and common values and principles. 

So how do we bring those values and principles to bear on working on those shared challenges together? And I said, you know, it’s something that’s really important for us to be able to communicate to everybody else. What do you think—how do we describe what’s at stake? And I think this goes to the conclusion in my FT op-ed also, which is the stakes are high. So what exactly are the stakes? And so, you know, we’re kicking around some ideas in terms of how do you message this, how do you communicate this? And it was Valdis who said, well, I think it’s—I think it’s very simple. What’s at stake is the free world. And I remember at the time having two slightly in tension reactions. 

One of them is, wow, he’s right. That is very simple and direct. It is the free world that’s at stake. But my second reaction was, oh, but, you know, “free world?” There’s such overtones of the Cold War that are baked into that. And I really hope that that’s not where we are. And, of course, many things have happened in the last three years, including the brutal and unjustified invasion of Russia into Ukraine, and so many other things that have happened. So many more complexities introduced into geopolitics. So many increased tensions on democracies here at home and abroad. 

And I look back on that conversation with Valdis Dombrovskis, a Latvian executive vice president of the European Commission, and I just marvel at how apt his suggestion remains today—even more apt than three years ago. That what is at stake is the free world. And so I think that what is going well is that that is where we started our relationship in June of 2021. What could use work is every single day in every engagement that we have in trade and otherwise, reminding ourselves that that is what is at stake.

FREDERICK KEMPE: Thank you. Thank you for that. 

So I’m going to turn to a colleague, David Wessel, formerly of the Wall Street Journal where we worked together, but now you can introduce yourself for the other—

DAVID WESSEL: David Wessel, at Brookings.

Ambassador, I wondered if you could tell us where your views overlap with those of Bob Lighthizer and where your views differ.

KATHERINE TAI: Well, thank you for asking about views, because I think early on I had been asked where he and I differ. And I like to say that I’m younger and better looking. But in terms of—Bob is a very nice-looking guy.

FREDERICK KEMPE: I think there may be a consensus in the audience.

KATHERINE TAI: So I am objectively younger. Where are—where our views are similar and where I find—where I find an alliance with Bob is a commitment to the fact that we have to change our approach to trade, that the world is significantly different, and that the benefits here in the United States are not inclusive enough. Those are my words, and that’s in my—very much my democratic vocabulary.

But I think that one of the really important and not foregone conclusions in the trade community internationally is that we do need to change. From my perspective, it’s that we need to evolve the way we do trade. And you can’t do that by yourself; you have to build that collective and that community to do it together. And I think that basing that community on a community of democracies is really important.

In terms of where our views are different, I hope that that’s obvious. And if it’s not, I would definitely take some feedback on how I can make that more obvious.

FREDERICK KEMPE: You want to throw out one example where it’s different? Maybe deal with China. Where do you think you’re the same or different on China?

KATHERINE TAI: On China, I think we share a lot of the same diagnoses. You know, I think one of the ways where Bob and I are most obviously different, again, is in rhetoric—although, you know, Bob inside the room versus Bob outside the room can be different, just like for all of us.


KATHERINE TAI: But you know, I think that one aspect of the Biden administration’s approach—and this very much reflects President Biden’s just innate internationalism—is this point of view that you have to build partnerships.

FREDERICK KEMPE: Yeah. So I saw a friend up a second ago. I was going to take the last two questions, and do them really quickly, and then come to a quick round. Is that all right with you?

KATHERINE TAI: Yeah. Absolutely.

FREDERICK KEMPE: Let’s do that. Please.

DAVID METZNER: Yes. Thank you, Fred. David Metzner with ACG Analytics.

I’d like to pull on the China string a little bit more. At the end of World War II, of course, China was an ally. China was in all the multinational organizations. Took a different turn in 1949. How do we think about China in the transatlantic context, particularly in trade? Europe will be releasing its report on electric vehicles, I think, in three weeks. We have—we just put tariffs on Chinese vehicles recently, I think, of roughly 95 percent. So how do we effectuate everything we want to do and strengthen the transatlantic relationship with China sort of orbiting outside and operating with capitalism with Chinese characteristics? So how do we—how do we think as transatlanticists on China?

FREDERICK KEMPE: That’s a great question, and we’ll pick up the last question. I think part of the answer to this question is also where do we differ transatlantically with regard to China, but—

FRANCES BURWELL: Fran Burwell, Atlantic Council and McLarty Associates.

You’ve spoken a lot about communities of democracy and shared values. You’ve also spoken a lot about institutions. Even the best of friends don’t always get on and agree on everything. So as you think about how the institutions should be reformed, what’s the role of the dispute resolution mechanism? How do you see that moving forward? What is the role of that in your new world of institutions? Thank you.

KATHERINE TAI: Great. OK. So let me try to distill those.

FREDERICK KEMPE: Please. Over to you.

KATHERINE TAI: So the question of China really I think deserves a whole separate session unto itself.


KATHERINE TAI: But let me put it this way. I think I—I actually think that the way you put the question about China is incredibly gentle. Capitalism with Chinese characteristics, actually, I’m not—or, I haven’t heard that term used in many, many years. At this point, I think it’s less diplomatic than just sort of ahistorical.

The China that we’re dealing with now, the PRC, is not a democracy. It’s not a capitalist, market-based economy. And so I think what might be useful in terms of shorthand in thinking about how we coexist and how we adapt to a world economy where the PRC has such an incredibly large footprint may go to revisiting how the negotiators and the founders of that post-World War II system and the ITO Charter thought about the possibility that the ITO Charter could have Soviet participation. At the beginning, it was—it was a possibility that the Soviet Union would be a member of the ITO Charter and I think that that’s where the labor standards, the environmental protections, the antimonopoly provisions really come in. 

So a lot more to say there, but let me just highlight that. 

On the second question, you’re absolutely right. I would say, you know, friends, when you’re different economies, different political entities, you’re never going to agree on everything, just like human friends don’t agree on everything. 

But there is a really important basis of mutual respect that you have to start from. I think that that question was really about the dispute settlement reform exercise at the WTO. We are entirely committed to the reform and the tough love that it’s going to take to reinforce the WTO and its role in the in the world economy. 

The dispute settlement system is one part of that. I think what I’d like to reflect on is the dispute settlement system that we had. The status quo ante was the same dispute settlement system that let or incentivized us to continue fighting for almost twenty years about state support for Boeing and Airbus that caused us to fight each other and pick at each other, their enormous cases, while the PRC built up its own civil—large civil aircraft industry under our noses.

And I think that that is really worth reflecting on, again, everything being connected, for us to think about dispute settlement in an organization like the WTO and how it doesn’t just become a giant litigation forum that you throw money and lawyers at to make a point against each other, to levy tariffs on each other, but how it can be a dispute settlement function that actually helps you resolve disputes with your friends and your competitors, who sometimes are the same alike. 

And that is a lot of what is informing our approach to dispute settlements reform at the WTO, which is how can it more effectively facilitate the resolution of disputes between significant trading partners and to prevent this ossification and political entrenchment that we have seen with our friends in the EU have—not just in this case. It had been many cases prevented us from coming together and focusing on things that really matter. 

FREDERICK KEMPE: Thank you so much for that. I think the work of our China Pathfinder Project and the GeoEconomics Center really underscores some of the things you’re saying.

What a rich conversation this has been. Thank you so much. 

I want to salute Josh Lipsky and his GeoEconomics team and the remarkable work they’re doing including the hosting of this event. Ambassador Dan Fried for playing the role that he’s done in bringing you to us, Ambassador Tai.

And I want to thank you for elevating this conversation on trade not just in the context of the anniversary of D-Day and the anniversary of Bretton Woods agreement, but in the context of the contest for the global future. So thank you so much, Ambassador Tai.

KATHERINE TAI: Thank you so much, Fred. Thanks to all of you.

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Image: US Trade Representative Katherine Tai speaks with Atlantic Council President and CEO Frederick Kempe at an Atlantic Council Front Page event on June 3, 2024.