A conversation with United States Trade Representative Katherine Tai


Since 1938, May has been recognized as World Trade Month, recognizing the importance of international trade to the US economy. Small and medium-sized enterprises are the backbone of international trade, accounting for 98 percent of all identified U.S. exporters and supports nearly four million jobs in communities across the country through both direct and indirect exports.

Katherine Tai currently serves as the United States Trade Representative (USTR), where she leads the U.S. government’s trade negotiations with the rest of the world. As USTR, she has been integral to strengthening our foreign economic partnerships and rebuilding our supply chains that have been disrupted by Covid-19.

I recently spoke with Ambassador Tai about her experience as a USTR, the opportunities her office has created for small and medium-sized businesses, and Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month. Below is our conversation, edited for clarity.

Rhett Buttle: It’s been a little over two years since you were sworn in as a United States Trade Representative. Tell us about the experience and what you feel you have achieved.

Ambassador Tai: It has been busy from day one. We have been through a lot in regards to Covid recovery. We’ve also been through a lot in terms of implementing President Biden’s vision of building the U.S. economy from the bottom up and from the center. At USTR, we have a special focus on who is at the bottom that we want to help lift to the middle and how we can expand and build our middle class. We ask what can we do from a trade policy standpoint to contribute to this overall goal? We pay special attention to employees. This is an acknowledgment that historically US trade policy in many governments has really focused on meeting the needs and interests of the largest economic participants in our system. I think it’s really important that we bring in these workers because they haven’t been to the center before.

The other part also looks at small and medium-sized enterprises. They are also the backbone of Main Street and also the backbone of our economy. So we are pushing ourselves to new ways to engage with the small business community, to open communication channels and to ask how we can use the tools in trade policy, which can be very powerful, to protect your interests as well. to help you grow and prosper?

Rhett Buttle: One of the areas you’ve focused on is strengthening our trade relationships, particularly with Taiwan, Kenya and others, prioritizing sustainability and resilience. Why is this important to the Biden administration’s trade agenda?

Ambassador Tai: It’s about connecting with the needs of our people. Ultimately, our economy is made up of people. Today, in 2023, we have now passed several years of pandemic and associated economic disruptions. They have influenced all of our lives by what it was like in lockdown, searching for toilet paper or waiting for cars and washing machines due to the shortage of microchips. What we’ve really internalized now is that the global trading system that we have and that we’ve built over the last few decades was good at many things, but was actually not good at promoting resilient supply chains. The supply chains are very efficient until something breaks, and then we realize we have disruptions that are very troublesome and even very dangerous in strategic areas.

The reason why it’s really important to strengthen those relationships with partners like Kenya and Taiwan is because we have a common goal. Our goal is really to deliver tangible, important results for people in more resilient economies that are more resilient to shocks, because more shocks are bound to come. We just don’t know exactly what they will be or when they will come, but we need more sustainability so that our people can promise their children a bright future with inclusiveness so that everyone has access to opportunities.

Additionally, with respect to both Kenya and Taiwan, something that’s really exciting here is that we’re not just connected by geostrategy. We are connected through our people. The diaspora communities are strong here and although I am the official trade ambassador for the United States, we have so many unofficial investors in our diaspora communities. I think the trade arrangements we have with Taiwan and Kenya are an incredible opportunity to reach out to those communities and small businesses, and bridge our economies in terms of language and sensitivity to the needs of both economies.

Rhett Buttle: May is World Trade Month. Can you share how your firm has worked to expand trading opportunities, particularly for small and medium-sized businesses?

Ambassador Tai: USTR’s trade policy and engagement with the rest of the world has traditionally focused on what’s good for our largest companies and how that trickles down to our employees and our communities. What we’ve seen over time is that it doesn’t trickle down very far. Our large companies have gotten bigger, but we’re struggling to expand opportunities from the bottom up and the middle out. An important part of my approach is to bring the US back into USTR.

It’s inspired by many of the members of Congress I worked for and with when I worked for the U.S. House of Representatives before coming back into administration. The best and most committed members of Congress are those who come to Washington to represent their constituents. When they’re not in Washington, they try to spend as much time as possible at home to make sure they stay connected to the communities and businesses, especially the small businesses. I think the same way about my job when I’m here in Washington representing the USTR in cabinet meetings, or when I’m negotiating with the Europeans in Brussels, or meeting with the G-7 trade ministers in Tokyo. To do my job well, to represent the interests of the United States, I have to leave Washington and travel around the US, especially to meet the individuals and the small businesses where they are and to let them know there is a agency called USTR. Then I ask the questions, what are your dreams? What are your struggles? And how can I integrate that into my work as we deal with Washington and the rest of the world?

Rhett Buttle: As you know, May is also AANHPI Heritage Month. As an Asian American serving in the President’s Office, what does it mean to represent your community at the highest levels of government?

Ambassador Tai: I’ve had a lot of opportunity this month to think about it and speak about it. It is an incredibly honorable privilege as I represent the AANHPI community, which itself is a community of communities, within the Cabinet. When we sit down and talk about policy, I’ll bring in the trade perspective, but I also think about the equity of this particular community and how can I bring that voice into this conversation. At the same time, I also represent the board in these communities. When I make my domestic travels, not only do I get in touch with the workers and the small businesses, but I also look for an opportunity to connect with the AANHPI communities, be it through their activist organizations and organizers or through small businesses.

A few of the really memorable appointments I’ve had recently were in Phoenix where I met some of the AANHPI community organizers. I also met small AANHPI companies during that same journey. In 2021, just as we came out of Covid and I started traveling, I went to western Wisconsin and met the Mong community at their community center there. It just reminded me of the community centers I grew up with,[laceswhereyou’dgototakeclassesandengagewithyourheritagebutalsotobuildyourrelationshipsandfriendshipswithotherkidswhogrewupandbridgedtwocultureswhenyougrewupandbridgedtwoculturesandexperiencedallthedreamsandstrugglesofthenewAmericanimmigrants[lacesthatyouwouldgototakelessonsandengagewithyourheritagebutalsotobuildyourrelationshipsandfriendshipswithotherkidswhoaregrowingupjustlikeyouandwerebridgingtwoculturesandlivingallofthedreamsandthestrugglesofthenewAmericanimmigrantexperience[veterswaarjeheenzougaanomlessentevolgenenjebezigtehoudenmetjeafkomstmaarookomjerelatiesenvriendschappenoptebouwenmetanderekinderendienetalsjijopgroeieneneenbrugsloegentweeculturenenalledromenenworstelingenvandenieuweAmerikaanseimmigrantenervaringbeleven[lacesthatyouwouldgototakelessonsandengagewithyourheritagebutalsotobuildyourrelationshipsandfriendshipswithotherkidswhoaregrowingupjustlikeyouandwerebridgingtwoculturesandlivingallofthedreamsandthestrugglesofthenewAmericanimmigrantexperience

Rhett Buttle: This month you gave a speech at the University of Southern California that discussed your personal story. What advice would you give to the next generation of AANHPI leaders who want to enter government and perhaps someday serve in the President’s Office?

Ambassador Tai: If I summarize the speech I gave at USC, the message is that you fit in despite all the challenges. This is a challenging time, especially for the AANHPI communities. We have shown our resilience throughout the history of the United States, and you should be confident that you belong and take every opportunity to embrace and assert that. This community has risen to the challenge and held its own in new ways. It really inspires me, and I think the benefits of our success as a community are not just limited to this community of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders, but it’s also an essential part of our success as a country.