Training the Next Generation of Female Trade Leaders in ASEAN

10/07/2022 | Silverado Policy Accelerator

In April, the Asia Society Policy Institute launched its new “Building Trade Ties with ASEAN’s Emerging Female Leaders” program, supported by Silverado Policy Accelerator. The purpose of the program, as ASPI Vice President and Silverado Strategic Council member Wendy Cutler explained at the program’s launch event, is to support the professional development of Asia’s next generation of female trade leaders by providing training and mentorship opportunities for early-career female professionals working in trade.

Following the launch in April, ASPI selected thirteen women from eight ASEAN nations to participate in the program’s inaugural cohort. The program, which kicked off in late September, included a ten-day swing through Washington, DC, New York, San Francisco and Silicon Valley, and featured a range of programs and meetings with leading voices from trade and beyond.

With the program having wrapped up in early October, we sat down with Cutler to hear her reflections on the program, as well as to ask her about some other significant developments in the trade world.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Silverado Policy Accelerator: What motivated you to start this new program?

Wendy Cutler: The impetus behind the program had a lot to do with my three decades of experience as a trade negotiator at the Office of the United States Trade Representative. The more I negotiated — with Asian countries in particular — the more I noticed how few women were at the negotiating table. Now in many of these countries, we’re seeing more women entering the negotiating ranks, but what we’re also witnessing is the absence of women in senior level positions in negotiating teams, as well as among the advisors and stakeholders who provide important input.

So in many respects, I wanted to “give back” in my post-USTR career by developing a program that could provide important mentorship and training opportunities for young women in Asia working on trade.

Silverado: It’s possible that some of the women who enter the program could one day end up on the opposite side of the negotiating table from American negotiators. Why is it important to train negotiators who aren’t necessarily going to be negotiating on behalf of the United States?

Cutler: The objective of the program is not to train these women to out-negotiate the United States. The objective of the program is to give them a better perspective on how U.S. trade policy is developed and share with them the considerations that we take into account as we develop trade policy with other government agencies, Congress, and a wide array of stakeholders. Also, the program seek to provide them with a set of basic negotiating skills that many of us in the United States take for granted but aren’t necessarily understood in in many other countries, particularly in Asia.

Silverado: What’s was on the agenda for the program?

Cutler: We put together a very exciting agenda for the program, which included stops in three cities: Washington, New York, and San Francisco/Silicon Valley. Over a ten day period, we attended a slate of meetings, briefing sessions, and site visits, including with senior business executives and former and current government officials. The sessions touched on a range of issues, including trade and tech as well as more fundamental questions like how to work with national legislatures and incorporate the views of stakeholders in negotiating proposals. There were also sessions dedicated to broader issues related to women’s empowerment and advancement in the workplace, including how to network with other trade professionals, how to be persuasive in the workplace, and how to develop leadership skills.

Silverado: How did you select the inaugural cohort?

Cutler: Thirteen women from eight southeast Asian countries participated in the program. We wanted to make sure that we had a geographic mix, so we were very excited to accomplish that. We had a tremendous amount of interest in the program, with about 120 applications. About two-thirds of the participants were from the public sector, with the rest from the private sector. It was important that they brought different perspectives to the subject matter, whether it was from their work as a stakeholder or as an actual negotiator or as someone who’s doing academic research to support trade negotiators.

Silverado: How has the partnership with Silverado shaped the development of the program?

Wendy: We are extremely grateful to Silverado for its partnership and support for the program, especially under the leadership of [Silverado’s Co-Founder and Executive Chair] Maureen Hinman, [Executive Director] Sarah Stewart, and [Deputy Executive Director] Adina Renee Adler. These are three women who have worked at USTR, who know the ins and outs of trade, and who have been able to help us shape a program that would be valuable. We feel like we have a partner who’s not just funding the project, but who is also working with us to make it as effective and impactful as possible.

Silverado: Pivoting to some other trade news, the trade ministers for the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) partner countries met last month in Los Angeles to release a document laying out negotiating objectives across the framework’s four pillars. What stood out to you about the objectives, particularly those in the trade pillar?

Cutler: The document on negotiating objectives in all four pillars exceeded my expectations. I thought they were a lot more detailed and substantive than I expected, and I thought the administration did an impressive job of bringing such a large and diverse group of Asian countries on board for the negotiations. With the exception of India in the trade pillar, all countries signed up to all the pillars, so this gets negotiations off to a great start.

There were no real surprises on the negotiating objectives in the trade pillar. Even though some participants may have been hesitant to embrace certain elements of the negotiating objectives — like labor — the Administration was able to bring them on board. They achieved that by walking the partner countries through the U.S.’s objectives, listening to their concerns, and trying to address them. As a result, the negotiating objectives are bold and meaningful while at the same time attracting wide and diverse participation.

That said, negotiating objectives are one thing, with the actual negotiations undoubtedly much tougher. But getting off to such a good start will help move the negotiations forward.

Silverado: Looking even further ahead, the United States is preparing to host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings in 2023. You were a key architect of those meetings the last time the United States hosted them in 2011, while you were serving as the Assistant USTR for APEC Affairs. What are you looking for the United States to do ahead of those meetings to position itself for success, and what would you consider to be success for the U.S. at next year’s meetings?

Cutler: In order to have a successful APEC year, planning on both substance and logistics is extremely important. I’m heartened to hear that the administration is focused on these meetings and will soon be announcing different sites for different meetings, including the leaders meeting, and that they have already started the interagency process to discuss objectives and substance.

That said, we are at a very different juncture in time in 2023 than we were when we last hosted APEC in 2011. There are many more challenges in APEC, in particular those stemming from the participation of Russia and China, which has complicated not only the United States’ objectives but the objectives of other countries as well. My advice for the administration is to be as pragmatic as possible and to find meaningful and impactful things that can be done — whether on trade facilitation or on digital trade or on gender issues for example — and to try and stay away from some of the deeper policy issues which, frankly, are not going to be resolved next year, given the different views of different members of APEC.

Silverado: As you said, APEC is facing some serious challenges. What if anything is encouraging to you about the trajectory of APEC today?

Cutler: What encourages me is that APEC is still up and running despite the setbacks of the past few years, including COVID and the cancellation of the ministers meeting in Chile during its host year. With the New Zealand year in 2021, and now with Thailand’s year this year, we’re headed into the United States’ year at a time when APEC is on the rebound from the setbacks that it experienced earlier.


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