US President Obama’s Trade Agenda 2016

Alicia Nicholls

The Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) has released President Obama’s Trade Policy Agenda for 2016 with the theme of “Trade that serves the American People”.

As expected in an election year and the President’s final term, the agenda document mentions some of the accomplishments of the President’s trade agenda over his two-terms, including the conclusion of free trade agreements with Korea, Colombia and Panama, the signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, the bringing of 20 enforcement cases in the World Trade Organisation (WTO), renewing the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) and the Africa Growth & Opportunity Act (AGOA) and “rejuvenating the WTO negotiation process”.

According to the preface to the document by current USTR, Michael Froman, the President’s 2016 agenda is centred on promoting growth, supporting well-paying jobs in the US and strengthening the middle class. To this effect, a central thrust of the Agenda will be continuing work towards achieving the removal of foreign taxes on US exports and enforcing US trade rights.

To further these goals, the administration in its remaining time has committed itself to continue its negotiation of free trade agreements which help promote jobs  for Americans and opportunities for US exporters. Mention was made of the on-going negotiations with the European Union on the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP) and deepening its relationship with Brazil through the Agreement on Trade and Economic Cooperation (ATEC). At the plurilateral level, there is commitment to conclude the Environmental Goods Agreement and the Trade in Services Agreement.

So where does the Caribbean feature in all of this? It should be noted that in the document, the Caribbean was mentioned a grand total of only twice. The document made reference to the Caribbean Basin Initiative, the US’ only permanent preference programme, and also noted that in 2016, the US  will continue its engagement with the region to encourage even greater trade and investment”.

It signals the US’ commitment towards preserving the preferential access Caribbean countries enjoy under the CBI for many of their merchandise exports. However, it also makes clear that the Region does not enjoy any real priority in Washington’s trade agenda. In contrast for example, the report notes that the US will “intensify engagement with trading partners in sub-Saharan Africa to advance key trade and investment initiatives” as US companies continue to see opportunities in Africa.

In regards to Cuba, the President’s agenda states as follows:

“Within the parameters for the new relationship with Cuba set by the Administration and the existing embargo, we will work in the WTO and bilaterally to explore ways to deepen our trading relationship with Cuba, and if conditions are right, advance the normalization of U.S.-Cuba trade relations.”

While the current agenda reaffirms the embargo, it does hint at normalisation “if conditions are right”, whatever those right conditions are.

In terms of the US’ multilateral engagements at the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the document confirms once and for all that Doha is dead as far as the US is concerned:

“In 2016, WTO members have an opportunity to undertake new approaches to longstanding issues and take up new issues without being constrained by the strictures of the Doha Round architecture.”

Instead, the President in his 2016 agenda has committed to “advancing a new form of pragmatic multilateralism that will tackle emerging issues important to developing and developed economies alike.” The agenda also states the US’ commitment to assisting the integration of Least Developed Countries into the global economy.

It is an election year in the US with its infamous “lameduck period” which brings uncertainty about how much of the Agenda the President will actually be able to achieve in his remaining time in office. The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP), which is a “central part of the President’s broader economic strategy”, has received major resistance and opposition both in the US congress, among the general public and some presidential candidates. As expected, the President, therefore, has a major fight on his hands to obtain Congressional approval of the TPP before he leaves office. There is no guarantee his successor will support it.

The full report may be accessed here.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B. is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

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