President Obama heads into Thursday's summit with Gulf Cooperation Council leaders looking increasingly beleaguered on the international stage. Foreign policy setbacks on Russia, Mideast peace and other issues preceded an embarrassing snub by Saudi Arabia's King Salman, who is among four of six GCC royals choosing to send an emissary.
Obama's international standing was temporarily weakened at home, too, with Tuesday's unnecessary rejection of Senate debate on trade promotion authority (or fast track), which would give Congress an up-or-down vote — with no negotiation or amendments — on free-trade agreements. Fast-track authority has been granted to nearly every president in the postwar era, and it's considered crucial for foreign leaders who want assurances of U.S. support before agreeing to concessions that are politically unpopular at home. Before an apparent congressional compromise reached late Wednesday, Obama was denied even a debate in the Senate, because all but one Democrat abandoned him. Both Minnesota Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken bucked the president, even though multiple multinational firms based in Minnesota are advocating for expanded access to global markets.
Tuesday's vote would not have granted fast-track authority to clear the way for the proposed 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) or the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP), which would enhance trade between the United States and the European Union. Instead, it simply would have opened up a Senate debate.
The compromise paving the way to revisit the vote on fast-track authority includes initial, separate votes on a trade-enforcement bill with language on currency manipulation (an issue that Obama and some Republicans fear would jeopardize negotiations with TPP nations if paired with the fast-track legislation) and on providing trade preferences to certain African countries. After that, the Star Tribune reported Wednesday, the Senate will vote on whether to discuss bills dealing with retraining displaced U.S. workers and granting Obama the trade promotion authority.
Even if the compromise holds, the Tuesday vote was certainly heard around the world at a time of widespread worry among U.S. allies. It was likely seen as a moment of opportunity for countries competing for economic and political influence, like China, and a signal that the U.S. is in retreat on the global stage. Obama, sensitive to sending such a signal, has often tried to cast the trade issue as a way to engage with the world, while not allowing China to "write the rules" on free trade. For its part, China, which is not party to the TPP, is aggressively negotiating bilateral trade pacts and has convinced several U.S. allies to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which is considered a rival to the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, where the U.S. and Japan have more influence.
T-TIP would not only economically solidify transatlantic relationships, but diplomatic ones, too, which is important as the West contends with Russian aggression.
Trade promotion authority does not mean a "yes" vote for the TPP or T-TIP. But continual "no" votes might mean that world leaders look at America differently, or even beyond it.