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Top Obama aide to pursue open trade amid protectionist turbulence

Rahm Emanuel, now Chicago mayor, says joining TPP is still in America’s interest

Rahm Emanuel was a senior adviser to President Bill Clinton, and a former White House Chief of Staff during Obama administration.

TOKYO -- Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a key figure in the pro-globalization administration of Barack Obama, maintained his firm belief in free trade in an interview with Nikkei Asian Review on Saturday.

“Nation to nation, there is a lot of turbulence. I think Chicago can be an island of stability and certainty,” said Emanuel, who was White House chief of staff from 2009 to 2010.

“I do believe in open trade, especially with our friends across the globe,” he added, joining a chorus of American municipal and state leaders who have taken a contrasting position to the administration of President Donald Trump on trade issues.

Democratic figures such as California Governor Jerry Brown and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, as well as Kentucky’s Republican Governor Mike Bevin have been among politicians urging the U.S. to exercise caution in escalating a trade war with Beijing.

Emanuel was visiting Tokyo as a part of a weeklong Asia trip that also included a stop in Beijing. He has long taken an interest in trade matters, advising President Bill Clinton on the North American Free Trade Agreement and Obama during the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal.

Emanuel, a leading figure in the Democratic Party, said his opposition to the Trump administration’s stance on global trade was more than political. “Chicago’s economy depends on being open,” the mayor said.

The Windy City is a key location for vehicle manufacturing as well as food processing, architecture and design, and financial services. Many businesses in Chicago are dependent on a rules-based international trading system, Emanuel noted.

The mayor did admit that some issues associated with free trade were worth re-examination. “I think all of us who support open trade have to acknowledge that, while it creates more opportunities, it also puts individuals at more risk,” he said.

“I don’t think we have been aggressive about minimizing risks while maximizing the opportunities,” he added.  “That has been a failure collectively for the past 20 to 30 years.

While Emanuel declined to disclose the content of his talks with Japanese and Chinese officials, he said that there was a desire on both sides to find new ideas about how to conduct global trade in the future. “People were looking for insights, or a way to understand and interpret not just what happened, but also what could be coming,” the mayor said.

Emanuel said he believed it was still in the U.S. national interest to join the TPP, but was not confident of that occurring during the Trump administration. “You are asking me to predict something that is about a person who is unpredictable. I can’t do that,” he said.

There has been speculation that Emanuel would challenge in Trump in 2020, but the mayor strongly denied he would run. “Not interested,” he said, adding that as cities grew in size and importance, their leaders were increasingly visible on the national and international stage. “The nation state we grew up understanding and appreciating in the post-World War II period is losing its swagger,” he said.

Emanuel recalled the 1960s when many American cities were blighted by urban decay, unemployment and population loss. Environmental quality was so bad that the Chicago River repeatedly caught fire. Many cities had to seek federal help. “Sixty years ago, we went Washington and said, ‘Save us’. Today, you cannot rely on unpredictable Washington,” he said.

But Emanuel’s priority while in Asia is his beloved Windy City.  Chicago’s metro has signed a US$1.3 billion deal to buy railcars from a Chinese company, CRRC Sifang, and Emanuel was keen to make sure the project would be unaffected by the China-US trade war.

Emanuel said he was committed to the reform of free trade. “The whole goal and challenge today is how to create more winners in the global economy,” he said, “rather than fewer very successful winners and a lot of losers.”

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