Debate about U.S. trade policy — the topic of the Minnesota International Center's "Great Decisions" dialogue this month — is typically framed economically. Well-reasoned and well-meaning advocates and opponents of free-trade agreements augment their arguments with data on exports, imports, jobs, wages and government subsidies. Environmental, intellectual property and other essential standards have standing in the debate, too.

Less discussed, despite being increasingly internationally important, is the impact on diplomacy. This link between world trade and geopolitics is especially timely amid growing global turbulence.

Tensions in Asia are ascending, for instance, with this week's nasty nationalistic spat between Vietnam and China just the latest flash point.

Recognizing Asia's importance to U.S. foreign policy, President Obama's "pivot" to the region includes military reassurance to allies, as well as a push to pass the proposed 12-nation trade pact called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

The TPP would be "a strong message to this region that the U.S. is really committed," Kenko Sone, director of the First North America Division at Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told me during my recent reporting trip to Tokyo organized by the independent Foreign Press Center of Japan. "We want some concrete examples of actions that really explain this rebalancing, and one of the biggest issues is the TPP negotiation."

For Tomohiko Taniguchi, who advises Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on economics, the TPP offers a chance to update global trading protocols like the United States and United Kingdom did in the postwar era. "TPP is about having another Bretton Woods system," Taniguchi said. "It was the U.S. and the U.K. that created these frameworks. Now we are talking about a 21st century as an Asian-Pacific century. Given the massive growth among these nations, it is now high time for these countries to get together to think about the highest possible standard for intellectual property and government subsidies and trade arrangements."

Obama's objectives behind another major trade deal being considered, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), are seemingly similar. But another benefit could be to reinvigorate the transatlantic alliance beyond NATO. After all, there's no viable military solution to the Crimean crisis, as evidenced by the sanctions strategy to punish Russia.

"Norway's assessment is they [sanctions] are having an effect," said Kåre Aas, the Norwegian ambassador to the United States.

Speaking at Norway House in Minneapolis last week before the 200th-anniversary celebration of Norway's Constitution, Aas also said that a clear commitment to Europe creates space for the Asian pivot. "We all have to address needs of countries interested in security cooperation. We understand the United States sees threats in this region [Asia], and we want to exercise solidarity. There is a concern that the United States is shifting resources from traditional areas, but we are comfortable because we think the security challenges are global," said Aas, who added that there are "so many confirmations that the U.S. has so many strong commitments to Europe."

These strong commitments are consequential in North America, too, with trade a key factor. But it's important to go beyond NAFTA and TTIP to realize additional economic and diplomatic dividends, said Mexico's ambassador to the United States, Eduardo Medina Mora.

"There is nothing that unites more than trade, because it translates into opportunities, jobs, innovation and wealth creation," Medina Mora said during a May 14 panel discussion on trade policy held at Cargill. Trade, he added, "is a good idea to improve the political circumstances of the world."

Medina Mora was speaking globally, but he could have been specifically referencing Rwanda, which has emerged from last generation's genocide to become a high-growth country. While not party to TPP or TTIP, Rwanda may enter its own regional trading bloc, said Rwandan Ambassador Mathilde Mukantabana, who was in Minneapolis on May 5. And yet Rwanda, like much of the world, still looks to America to create conditions contributing to economic growth.

"The United States has a very essential and historical role to play in Africa," said Mukantabana. "Because Africa is coming up. We have conflicts, but at the same time, most Africans are appraising their own leverage in the world."

Economic leverage will still be the fundamental factor in the trade debate. The latest addition to this debate's data is Thursday's Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development report, which said that in 2013, Minnesota companies exported $20.7 billion worth of manufactured, mining and agricultural products, just below the record $20.8 billion in 2012. (Exports of manufacturing goods, which represent 93 percent of the total, hit a record $19.3 billion.)

Diplomatic leverage is less numerical and more nuanced, which is one reason why it seems so secondary in the necessary debate on trade. But conflict carries incalculable costs, too, so economic integration is key to Kigali and other capitals, including Washington.

Reflecting this reality, Mukantabana said, "In the United States we can't find any better country, and they have a really big thing they can bring in partnerships."

John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. on Friday on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.

The Star Tribune Editorial Board and the Minnesota International Center are partners in "Great Decisions," a monthly dialogue discussing foreign-policy topics. Want to join the conversation? Go to