#28 The G|O Briefing, December 9, 2020


This is an onsite, slightly edited republication of the complete G|O Briefing newsletter

Today in The Geneva Observer, with so much on our individual and collective minds, with the immediate threat of COVID-19, together with the mother of all threats, the climate emergency, we are connecting the dots to point out that working together offers the best path forward. This is what Mary Robinson, ex UN human rights’ boss and now climate activist does, on the eve of the Paris COP25 anniversary, in a wide-ranging interview on our website. It’s a piece full of hope, and a forceful tribute to women and the importance of “Generation Greta” activism.

Robinson confronts head-on the “pandemic fatigue” that seems to grip us as we face a difficult winter. But she rejects the notion that, by analogy, there could also be “climate change” fatigue: “While WHO and others have used the term 'pandemic fatigue,' I urge caution in applying this label. We must not conflate the anxiety associated with lockdowns—often linked to economic concerns—with an unwillingness to adhere to public-health guidance. When we consider climate change, what is sometimes construed as 'fatigue' may actually be the high psychological and even physical toll of recognizing the seriousness of the threat we face. This is why I have such admiration for the young people, indigenous activists, and other dogged lone voices who have called for climate action for decades."

Two other takeaways from her interview: the best roadmap—the matrix even—to help us move forward are the SDGs. And trade (read the WTO) matters enormously:

“The COVID-19 crisis has shone a spotlight on the need for multilateral rules. Under new leadership, the WTO could also play a crucial role in reframing global trade policies in line with the priorities of decarbonizing growth, protecting biodiversity, and cutting pollution.”

This, as Joe Biden has just announced his nomination for US Trade Representative, Katherine Tai. Tai might well become a key member of the Biden’s administration. Reinventing trade, more than just fixing it, and making it more inclusive is part of the essential arsenal to fight populists everywhere who play on the worries of globalization’s discontents.

Rising from a staffer’s position (Tai is currently chief trade counsel on the House Ways and Means Committee) on Capitol Hill to the cabinet is unusual. “Do you know her? What is your reaction?” were the questions we asked around over the last two days. In typical International Geneva discreet and mostly anonymous fashion, the responses have unanimously been of praise. A former WTO official tells the G|O: "I don't know her personally, but all the right people are ecstatic about her choice.”

Indeed, Tai, a Harvard-trained lawyer with a solid record in WTO trade enforcement and international trade negotiations and fluent in Mandarin, served as General Counsel at USTR from 2007 to 2014 and then as Chief Counsel for China Trade Enforcement from 2011 to 2014 before joining the powerful Ways and Means Committee of the US House of Representatives as the Democratic Chief Trade Counsel.

"Katherine Tai is a wonderful choice for the Biden administration and for US trade policy more generally," Andrew Shoyer, leader of International Trade at Sidley Austin, LLP based in Washington DC, and a former legal advisor at the USTR mission in Geneva to the WTO, told the G|O.

From a Geneva-based trade lawyer: "She's good, and she understands the game. That is a good choice and shows Biden wants to see a professional in the job, and she won't have problems in confirmation." "She's a terrific lawyer, very sharp and analytically very good," said a former colleague who worked with Tai when she was in private practice.

A senior EU trade diplomat hopes that with her nomination, “we may be returning back to normalcy in trade relations," a sentiment shared with us by a former senior Chinese WTO diplomat: “Tai may understand China better," adding, "I hope more cool heads will prevail and there are more structured bilateral and multilateral contacts between the US and China."

In her post at Ways and Means, Tai—who comes from the center-left wing of the Democratic party—has also been credited with securing better labor and environment provisions in the recent US, Mexico, Canada Agreement (USMCA), the successor to NAFTA, and which helped secure Democratic support for the accord. Her "impressive" work on labor in the USMCA has also impressed the ILO, noted a senior official at the agency, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "We're always pleased to have labor referred to in trade agreements like USMCA and referencing our work," the official said, and noted labor clauses have come back in fashion. “Clearly, things are changing.”

Rufus Yerxa, President of the influential National Foreign Trade Council, and a former Deputy USTR and former WTO deputy director-general, told the G|O: "A Great choice. It suggests three things about a future Biden trade policy. First, the importance of a better China strategy, because she has formidable expertise about China; second, the need to restore the rules in US trade policy, something she believes in strongly; and third, the need to ensure trust and collaboration between the Administration and Congress, given her ties to many members of both houses."

As we have often reported before, the Trump strictly transactional approach to trade is coming to an end with the new administration. But the emphasis on “fair trade” and on “leveling the playing field” will undoubtedly remain long-lasting preoccupations of US trade policy under the Biden-Harris administration. Another major difference will be a difference in methods: recent position papers from the EU and the US argue for the development of a common framework on issues of concern relating to China.

This has not gone unnoticed in Beijing. “Under Biden, Tai could be instrumental in implementing the strategy of recruiting allies and ganging up on China at the WTO,” Wu Xinbo, director of Fudan’s University’s American Studies Center, told the South China Morning Post, adding “Tai’s previous experience in setting US strategy in trade disputes with China at the WTO meant she was skilled in applying pressure to China on a multilateral platform.”


Feminist Foreign Policy

A new document (more of a work in progress than a report) has caught our attention, and it’s a pleasure to share it. The topic: feminist foreign policy.

“Building back better” is the new mantra, both at the UN and with the new US administration. foraus, the forward-looking Swiss foreign policy think tank is upping the ante with something more akin to “built back differently.” Along with four partners and regrouped under the Open Think Tank Network, they have published “Introducing the Purple Age, Crowdsourced recommendations for a Feminist Foreign Policy.”Before you ask, “It is important to be aware that there is no single model of Feminist Foreign Policy (FFP) which can be applied to all countries and institutions,” states the document. Born from a bottom-up process conducted with over 200 participants from five continents, Open Think Tank Networks’ definition of FFP is a policy that “seeks to achieve overall equality based on rights, is fundamentally pacifist and promotes a regenerative approach to nature.”

Sweden was the first country to adopt an FFP in 2014, followed in 2017 by Canada. France has one since 2019 and a number of countries are at work on developing their own model, including the US.

Why now? For the lab writers out of their “Policy Kitchen”: “The feminist foreign policy challenge is timely for several reasons: 2020 is an extraordinary year for international commitments on gender equality. It marks the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, the 20th anniversary of United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security and the 5th anniversary of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Nr. 5 on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment. At the same time, we are experiencing a significant backlash against gender equality and women’s rights, along with increasing inequality around the globe.”


Still no decision from WTO TRIPS Council on COVID-19 IP waiver

WTO's TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) Council has been continuing its discussions, based around a joint South African and Indian proposal, for an intellectual property (IP) waiver for COVID-19 drugs and vaccines. An IP exemption would allow the manufacture of generic drugs by any producers around the world. However, it's unlikely it will be accepted.

The proposal will be further discussed at WTO's General Council next week but to be accepted it would require a consensus decision that looks very unlikely as a strong coalition of G20 countries, backed up by the pharmaceutical industry, have been markedly against such a proposal. These countries—the US, Japan, Canada, Australia, the EU countries, Switzerland and others—are all mentioned in a report published by Oxfam, Amnesty International and other groups this week which found that countries representing just 14% of the world’s population have bought up around 53% of the most promising vaccines. And while several low- and middle-income countries have secured vaccine doses (India, Mexico and Brazil), they remain a very small number and they further reduced the availability of doses to other countries. According to the report:

“Wealthier nations have bought up enough doses to vaccinate their entire populations nearly three times over by the end of 2021.”

We have been reporting on these discussions as they have been ongoing since October—as well as the broader issues relating to the COVID-19 vaccine. As the meeting was unable to come to an agreement, WTO’s General Council will take up the matter next week. However, it’s unlikely a resolution will be found, and those discussions are expected to resume in early 2021.

These debates have echoed the HIV/Aids crisis and the debates around WTO about whether its rules relating to IP were blocking access to antiretrovirals in low- and middle-income countries, particularly in Africa. And similar to that issue, the current debate has been garnering much civil society support. Over 900,000 people have signed a petition calling for universal access to affordable COVID-19 vaccines and for related patents to be waived.

However, despite this activism, it's unlikely that will lead to a change of heart within countries in the global north.  Despite all the rhetoric, the legal reality is largely based on nationalism. As the UK begins delivering the first COVID-19 vaccines to much global fanfare, there doesn't seem to be any appetite—or incentive—to delay acquiring doses in favour of less wealthy countries, quite the reverse in fact. Donald Trump’s failure to secure more doses of the Pfizer vaccine is seen as an embarrassing botch of statecraft. His executive order, signed several days ago, suggested the US government would invoke a 70 year old Defence Act to order private manufacturers to ramp up production, give the US government priority on any new vaccines, and restrict their export. This strategy is supported by Nancy Pelosi, Democratic Speaker of the House. From a domestic perspective, while some states are currently against the waiver, no one seems to be realistically making the argument for ensuring other countries receive the vaccine.

-JC, with additional reporting from Philippe Mottaz

Today's Briefing: Philippe Mottaz - Jamil Chade - John Zarocostas

Edited by: Paige Holt