A new global trade agenda is taking shape.
In my days teaching school in rural East Africa, I relished my weekly trips to the open market or soko. Walking through a sea of grass mats where villagers (usually old women) were hawking pyramids of vegetables, piles of spices, mounds of dried fish, and more, I loved the sights, and sounds, and smells.
But what made it special wasn’t merely the goods being offered, it was the human interaction at the heart of that gathering place. Buyers, sellers—even mzungus like me—were communicating with each other in the most basic—and human—of ways.
Ninety-five percent of the world’s population lives outside the United States, and many of them are potential consumers for what our farmers grow and for what our companies produce.
When I stopped in front of a mat that caught my eye, a ritual began that would be repeated by others over and over again in every corner of the soko, in every soko in the country, and likely across the continent. Marshaling my best (and butchered) Kiswahili, I’d ask “mama” how much she wanted for those tomatoes. She would come in too high—we both knew it—and I would chuckle and she’d break into a smile. When I gently pushed back, she would talk about the quality of those tomatoes or the costs that she faced, and we’d slowly and smoothly reach an agreement on price. I also knew how to seal the deal. Switching to her mother tongue of Kiluhya, I’d ask her if she would be willing to add just a little bit more to her offering. She’d roar with laughter (after all, I am a mzungu), then comply.
Neither of us had “won” or “lost.” The transaction didn’t necessarily make us friends, but it did make us partners. Each of us was glad the other had been there, and each of us was satisfied that a need had been met. In all my trips to the soko, I never once saw a buyer and seller end up in fisticuffs or even harsh words.
I'm sometimes asked why countries receiving American foreign aid “don’t like us more.” Implicit in the question is the notion that such nations should be sincerely grateful for American assistance, and that gratitude should translate into open praise and support for American policy.
While I am confident recipient countries are grateful for our assistance—especially what comes in response to disaster or crisis—I would also understand it if there were also a little hint of resentment. No human being wants to be dependent on others for his or her needs, and no real leader is satisfied with his or her country being dependent on another for its economic future.
As administrator of USAID, I used to argue that the purpose of our foreign assistance should be ending its need to exist—that we should aim to walk side by side with countries on their journey to self-reliance. I believed then, as I do now, that we should prioritize support for initiatives and reforms that accelerate capacity-building and which target barriers to inclusive, sustainable economic growth. We should help our partners to become better equipped for what, in my experience, they want most: the kind of trade and investment that leads to good-paying jobs and opportunities—especially for their youth.
Yes, trade needs to be fair. Yes, trade must take into account some of the world’s sweeping challenges like preserving biodiversity and strengthening climate resilience. But make no mistake, trade is essential if we’re going to forge a more prosperous future.
If I had simply walked through the market each week handing out cash, I would have gradually destroyed the sense of community and shared humanity that made the soko the centerpiece of village life. My neighbors would likely have grown to resent my presence and the message of superiority that such activities would have sent, whether intentional or not. Hard to blame them.
America needs to expand its trade relationships for a wide range of reasons. Trade helps us grow, and it supports good-paying jobs back home. Ninety-five percent of the world’s population lives outside the United States, and many of them are potential consumers for what our farmers grow and for what our companies produce. Trade can bring profits to business, and higher wages to workers. It spurs innovation, and the development of new products and technologies—some of which will lift the human condition.
But trade relationships are also important because they softly bind countries together in ways we often take for granted. The spirit of commerce can decrease conflict and increase collaboration. It doesn’t always turn enemies into allies or strangers into friends, but it gives partners a shared stake in order and stability. In short, boosting trade can strengthen trust at a time when trust seems to be in short supply.
Yet trade hasn’t simply fallen out of political fashion here in the US, it’s become the equivalent of a dirty word. Populists on the far right and left rail against trade as though it were a pestilence. Meanwhile, other trading nations are moving on without us—making money, growing jobs, and changing attitudes about where their interests lie.
Every week, it seems there’s an announcement of a major infrastructure project that doesn’t involve the US, our partners, or friends. The UK recently announced that it’s joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP, after its previous incarnation was rejected by both President Trump and his 2020 rival Hillary Rodham Clinton. At the end of 2022, the UK completed trade deals with Australia and New Zealand, and it has announced that it’s pursuing agreements in 2023 with India, Canada, Mexico, and the Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC. For its part, Australia is in negotiations for trade agreements with India and the EU, and considering deals with the UAE and GCC. And China has applied to join the CPTPP.
While governments the world over say that America is their preferred partner and sought-after investor, they also see the world changing and new opportunities emerging. It appears they feel the need to move ahead without us.
Yes, trade needs to be fair. Yes, trade must take into account some of the world’s sweeping challenges like preserving biodiversity and strengthening climate resilience. But make no mistake, trade is essential if we’re going to forge a more prosperous future, and we shouldn’t begrudge other countries that already see it that way.
This issue of the Wilson Quarterly looks at how countries around the world are pursuing new trade relationships with and without the US. We see how the Abraham Accords have opened the door to a new wave of economic activity and innovation in the region, and is setting the stage for others outside the region to join in. We see how leaders in Africa are moving to implement a new continent-wide trade zone agreement that could create vast market opportunities and new purchasing power in African countries. The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, received the largest bipartisan vote of any free trade agreement in history. In this issue, we learn that other nations would like to join USMCA or have something similar in place with the United States. And as President Biden marks the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, we speak with several business owners in Ireland who are navigating the realities of Brexit while pinning their hopes on trade to invigorate peace and profits.
As international managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Kristalina Georgiva, has put it, we are living in a “shock-prone world” these days. The economic catastrophes inflicted on the world by the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s brutal war on Ukraine have changed the economic calculations of entrepreneurs and economic policy leaders in many parts of the world. Nearshoring and friend-shoring are now policy imperatives. But as we think about this world and America’s role in shaping it, I can’t help but think back—wistfully and strategically—to that little village in East Africa and the relationships built in and around the marketplace.
Ambassador Mark A. Green is the President and CEO of the Wilson Center.
Cover photo: Traditional African markets operates much as they have for generations, although today many vendors accept credit cards and use other forms of cashless payments. Shutterstock/i_am_zews