‘What some people call unilateralism, other people call leadership’

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Series Details Vol.7, No.21, 24.5.01, p13
Publication Date 24/05/2001
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Date: 24/05/01

US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick's relationship with Pascal Lamy is seen as key to future EU-US relations. But that doesn't mean either will shrink from his own interests, Bush's envoy tells Craig Winneker

FOR a man who represents a country accused of becoming too unilateral in its foreign policy, US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick has just spent a lot of time in Europe multilaterally multitasking.

The 47-year-old negotiator, making his first official trip to the continent as USTR, paid his respects to MEPs, listened to the concerns of developing nations in the run-up to a new round of world trade talks and kibbitzed with several European Commissioners on issues ranging from genetically-modified crops to export tax breaks to enlargement.

"It was time well spent," Zoellick said in an interview with European Voice as he was being whisked from the Paris headquarters of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development to Charles de Gaulle airport. Especially crucial was the ability to huddle again with his old friend and fellow detail-man, Pascal Lamy. "We obviously know each other well," Zoellick says of the EU Trade Commissioner . "We can go right down to work and spend hours on serious things, most of which was [preparing for the World Trade Organisation meeting in Qatar], some of which was bilateral. That is important in and of itself but it was also useful in that I think it helped send the right signal to other countries."

The transatlantic climate during the visit could best have been described as fair-to-partly-sunny. The week produced much backslapping and handshaking over the prospects for launching a new WTO round. Plus, the EU and US had just ended a long-running dispute over banana import quotas.

But President George W. Bush's recent decisions to abandon the Kyoto climate change accord and push for a controversial missile-defence shield, along with his tough talk on looking out for US economic interests before multilateral ones, had not gone down well in Europe. The anti-Washington sentiment peaked earlier this month when the US embarrassingly lost seats on a couple of key United Nations committees.

The US had to do some public-relations work and Zoellick was part of the charm offensive - first to the European Parliament in Strasbourg (where he nevertheless rubbed some MEPs the wrong way), and then Paris, where the OECD was holding ministerial-level talks on trade and environment issues.

He dismisses the notion that some politicians in the US are more concerned with protecting their own interests than in helping developing countries. But he is quick to say that free trade has to come at a price.

"I don't want trade with developing countries to become a new dimension of dependency logic, as aid did," he says. "While we certainly need to listen, be attentive and give special help I also want a sense of mutual responsibility."

He also isn't afraid to rebut "all the European comments about American unilateralism", or at least put them into context.

"What some people call unilateralism, other people call leadership," he says. "I remember in 1989 that other than the United States there weren't too many countries that supported German reunification. On that one we turned out to be right and the British and the French and the Dutch and everybody else turned out to be on the wrong side of history, although [Commission President Jacques] Delors was not."

It is perhaps no accident that Zoellick would exempt Delors from his trenchant analysis; the Frenchman's long-time top aide was none other than Lamy.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the Zoellick-Lamy friendship is key to the future of EU-US trade relations. The two met as Sherpas at G7 summits in 1991 and 1992 and have kept in touch ever since.

When Zoellick took office earlier this year, much was made of the Lamy connection, and of the fact that both men are known to have a fondness for policy 'wonkery' - cold technocrats without keen political radar. Their results in recent weeks are proving otherwise.

"I wouldn't over-emphasise the friendship," Zoellick says. "We are friends but I think the more important part is that we're professionals. We're people who try to emphasise problem-solving in a reasonable fashion. And we are both people who combine some technocratic skills with some understanding of the political environment."

This translates into a symbiotic transatlantic relationship. "If I'm aware of politically-sensitive issues for him, I'll try to manage them appropriately. And he will do the same for me," Zoellick says. "That does not mean that he will shrink from Europe's interest or I will shrink from American interests but I think the sense is that we're likely to get further working together."

Even the decision to go to Strasbourg rather than Brussels on his first European mission was a calculated political move, designed to acknowledge the growing importance of the European Parliament among EU institutions. "I think that revealed a recognition of the evolving European system of governance," he says. "It was a mark of respect, too."

In his speech last Tuesday (15 May) to the 'Kangaroo Group' of free-trade MEPs, Zoellick stressed positive signs in EU-US relations but nevertheless challenged members to push for reform of the Common Agricultural Policy. By doing this, he told the group, "the European Union can save money, enlarge to include central and eastern European nations, restore public confidence in agriculture and open European ports to delightful food from around the world".

While the sentiment behind that light-hearted remark might not prove too palatable in Europe, the speech itself was another attempt by Zoellick to give a political boost to Lamy.

"I'm showing his authorisers some respect and attention, which I hope will help him do his job," Zoellick says. "He comes and visits members of the Congress, which I hope helps me do my job. It removes some of the stereotypes."

This 'you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours' strategy was politically fruitful when it came to ending to the banana war, which had soured EU-US relations for nine years.

"I think it was a good sign to both sides," Zoellick says. "I'm not sure that Europeans really appreciated that on the American side it was much more than an interest in particular companies. [The fight] was for many members of Congress a sign that the WTO dispute resolution system couldn't work."

Striking a deal to end the banana war, he points out, was simply "a question of identifying the moment when something is ripe" - he doesn't even catch his own pun - "and then having conditioned yourself in the preparatory work so you can take advantage of it".

It's unclear, though, whether they can build on the banana success. Most media attention during last week's trip was focused on multilateral support for a new round. But Zoellick also made news by likening possible EU sanctions against the US for its Foreign Sales Corporations tax scheme to a "nuclear" attack.

He now says his comments were overblown and that the two sides can work together on a range of issues - starting with the new round - even as they try to avoid a €4 billion trade war. "We've shown good faith on bananas, we're trying to resolve beef," he says. "I was really suggesting that [FSCs] is such a potentially large, complex item that - depending on the nature of the result - we need to manage it properly."

Besides, if the meals he was served in Paris and Strasbourg are any indication, the US may be winning the beef war. "Here I was in a place where people serve me food and what was striking was that no one served me any [beef]," he says, briefly savouring the irony before sticking in the rhetorical fork: "I tell you, when Europeans come to the United States they all eat beef."

Perhaps the way to win Europe's heart is through its stomach.

Feature on the visit by US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick to Europe for talks with national and European officials, May 2001.

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