Strategy Without Vision: The U.S. and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation

Vinod K. Aggarwal and Kun-Chin Lin

APEC: The First Decade, 2002

Since the mid-1980s, the U.S. has pursued a mixed strategy of alternating among or combining unilateral, bilateral, minilateral, and global trade negotiations. Recent scholarly assessments have looked favorably on this “multitrack strategy.”1 Yet considerable debate exists over the relative importance of these tracks, and over tactical issues such as the means to achieve regional initiatives while advancing liberalization on the global level. By contrast, U.S. domestic interest group debates have centered less around institutional or strategic solutions and more on the substance of long-term agenda and objectives. These seemingly separate debates over strategy and goals are actually closely related in trade policymaking: as we shall argue below, the challenges of institutional reconciliation necessarily alter the parameters of feasible objectives.

The overarching critical theme of this essay is that in the post-Cold War era, American trade policy has been marked by “strategy without vision” — leading to what we term “opportunistic liberalization.” Put differently, it has searched for the path of least resistance among bilateral, minilateral, and multilateral approaches, be they for a few or many products, alternating among them whenever an earlier commitment runs into obstacles. This approach is
further complicated by domestic political imperatives to maintain an overall pro-trade balance in the face of lobbying from export-dependent sectors and protectionist coalitions calling for nonnegotiated unilateral measures. Consequently, U.S. trade policy has manifested a lack of overarching strategic coherence and of credible institutional commitments, with predictable adverse effects on the deepening of liberalization efforts accomplished after the Uruguay Round.

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