Understanding Washington: U.S. Trade Policy Training

(From left to right) Scott Parven, Partner, Akin Gump; Wendy Cutler, Senior Policy Consultant, Akin Gump; and Eric Ettorre, Trade Counsel, House Committee on Ways and Means, in conversation. Meridian House, March 21, 2024. Photo by Stephen Bobb.


On March 21, 2024, the Meridian Center for Diplomatic Engagement partnered with Akin Gump to convene trade and economic ministers, commercial officers, sector leads, and select Meridian partners for the latest iteration of its Diplocraft series, “Understanding Washington: U.S. Trade Policy Training.” This training focused on the high-level factors informing trade policy development and execution at the federal level, providing practitioner-focused training and economic forecasting to the Meridian House audience.  

Featured speakers included:  

  • Laura Black (Senior Counsel, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP)  
  • Wendy Cutler (Senior Policy Consultant, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP) 
  • Eric Ettorre (Trade Counsel, House Committee on Ways and Means) 
  • Scott Parven (Partner, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP) 
  • Clete Willems (Partner, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP) 

Frank Justice, Vice President at the Center for Diplomatic Engagement, delivered introductory and closing remarks. 

The program began with a panel on traditional U.S. trade policy. The discussion emphasized how trade is currently viewed as a political nuisance, as fractures exist within each of the parties and between the executive and legislative branches of government. The latter relationship has experienced ups and downs throughout American history. In 1934, the Reciprocal Trade Agreement endowed the president with the power to negotiate bilateral, reciprocal trade agreements. Since then, Congress and the Executive have often found themselves in a tug-of-war with respect to trade policy. However, one area of consensus in government is the United States’ strategic competition with China. Traditional trade issues have faded into the background as economic security issues—often involving China’s dominance in critical supply chains—have become the main topic of conversation in Washington.  

The panel also provided practical recommendations on how embassies can inject themselves into this dialogue. Ambassadors and diplomats were advised to proactively connect with offices in Congress, the United States Trade Representative (USTR), and the Department of Commerce—the latter of which has driven Biden’s economic policy under Secretary Gina Raimondo’s leadership. However, the panel also noted that interagency dynamics can shift across administrations. Attendees were also encouraged to grow their networks beyond Washington. If the United States continues its path towards isolationism, ambassadors should consider building relationships with governors, mayors, and other subnational leaders (Learn more about Meridian’s work in Subnational Diplomacy here). The bottom line: do not wait until a problem emerges to establish those important relationships.  

The second half of the program consisted of a panel on alternative U.S. trade remedies. The panel stressed that a protectionist U.S. is not permanent, with attitudes towards trade changing based on the geopolitical climate at hand. China’s rise as a hegemonic power is one of the main reasons for the current turn inward, and the panel identified key trade opportunities for the U.S. to pursue in partnership with its allies. Sectoral negotiations—particularly in the areas of semiconductors, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, electric vehicles, and critical minerals—offer significant potential to “friendshore” critical supply chains. Additionally, the American government might benefit from further alignment of its infrastructure policy with its trade policy. The United States Development Finance Corporation (DFC) was referenced as an example to be leveraged as a supply chain diversification tool: identifying strategic partners around the world from whom the U.S. could import materials for its infrastructure projects.  

Finally, the panel forecasted changes in American trade policy under a second Trump administration. Although additional tariffs are likely, there would also be new opportunities. Describing Trump as a “dealmaker,” panelists highlighted his track record of engaging in trade deals—both conventional and unconventional—that have been less prevalent under the Biden Administration. 

To access Meridian’s complete repository of diplomatic resources, please visit https://www.meridian.org/diplomacy/diplomatic-resources/. 

This program was made possible through the generous support of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP.   



Project summary

Understanding Washington: U.S. Trade Policy Training | March 2024
Impact Areas: Business and Trade, Foreign Policy
Program Areas: Diplomatic Engagement
Partners: Private Sector, Diplomatic Corps, Individuals/Donors
Meridian Trade Policy Training