May The Force Be With Trade

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May The Force Be With Trade

By Steve Lamar, AAFA - 05/04/2018

May 2018 marks World Trade Month ― a time of public and private celebrations of the benefits of trade.

Star Wars fans know that May doubles as an unofficial Star Wars celebration as we begin the month with Star Wars Day (May The Fourth) and, this year, end it with the release of the latest in the franchise ― Solo: A Star Wars Story.

Negotiators for the United States, Canada, and Mexico  the three partners in the North American Free Trade Agreement inadvertently stumbled into this nexus when they briefly set May 4 as a target date to wrap up talks in the effort to modernize NAFTA. 

What other connections does NAFTA, or trade in general, have with Star Wars? Let’s look at six notable Star Wars quotes to find out.

“The Force will be with you. Always.” Obi-Wan Kenobi’s advice to Luke Skywalker sets the tone and provides an important plot device for the entire Star Wars franchise. We learn that the Force is everywhere and affects and even controls the interactions of all living things. Trade plays a similar role, connecting farmers, manufacturers, retailers, and consumers in the U.S. and worldwide through unseen, powerful global value chains. While perhaps not as thrilling as a Jedi mind trick, the many hidden transactions that combine to convert U.S. grown cotton, into fabric woven in Mexico, and finally into a pair of jeans bought in Washington, D.C. are no less amazing. 

“Wars not make one great.”  Master Yoda makes this observation when informed that Luke is looking for a “great warrior.” While Yoda is talking about shooting wars, the lesson is equally applicable to trade wars and, in fact, the Trade Federation learns this lesson the hard way when their trade blockade of Naboo is defeated by a motley collection of rebels. This is sound advice today, with debates over whether trade wars are “good and easy to win,” and whether tit-for-tat tariff escalation accomplishes larger strategic goals or disenfranchises trade partners. In fact, trade wars are unwinnable, and greatness comes not from those who try to fight them, but the traders themselves.

“It’s the ship that made the Kessel run in less than twelve parsecs.” Han Solo boasts of the speed of the Millennium Falcon when discussing his preferred method and route for smuggling. And while one might think Han is referring to the dark side of trade, he is really demonstrating as he does time and again  that speed matters, especially when arrayed against much larger forces. In trade, speed is also vital, particularly as impatient customers demand their goods faster than ever before. In many ways, the NAFTA update is all about speed. Not only are the negotiations taking place at a lightspeed, but the end result – bringing NAFTA into the e-commerce era and further facilitating trade among these three countries can ensure that goods and services move faster in this region than ever before.

“There’s always a bigger fish.” Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn notes this with a humble bearing as he escapes certain death when a massive sea creature pursuing his ship is suddenly consumed by another much larger one. Star Wars teaches us there is often a surprise around the corner. Whether it is a dark lord who turns out to be your father or a princess who turns out to be your sister, the characters who are prepared for these surprises are the ones who persevere. In trade, such traits of flexibility and agility especially in an era of unprecedented uncertainty are equally vital. Not knowing from where the next trade challenge will emerge, but being ready to adjust when it does, is becoming a key metric of success for many global supply chains today.

“Do or do not, there is no try.” Yoda’s timeless wisdom emphasizes action over hesitation. Trade works this way too. The number of trade agreements now in force has exploded during the past two decades as more countries are negotiating an increasingly dizzying array of commercial relationships. Agreements must be negotiated, implemented, used and enforced constantly. Standing still at any of these stages, especially as you face competition from companies and countries, means you are moving backwards. The United States needs to be careful it doesn't fall into this trap as other countries press ahead with new agreements while we focus primarily on old ones.

“I find your lack of faith disturbing.” Darth Vader has the final say as he chokes the words out of an Empire minion who doubted the power of the Force. Vader quickly demonstrates that a rush to judgement is often ill-advised. This is impactful, especially when applied in the trade policy world where many skeptics rush to embrace populist, yet ill-equipped notions such as deficits to air their concerns. In reality, trade is a relatively complicated affair, whose benefits are not easily reduced to sound bites even as they are easily felt by all Americans countless times a day. And while we can't rely on Vader's tactics to instill belief where faith fails, we can do a better job of educating ourselves of the true value of trade so we all share a better understanding of it.

We are told that Star Wars takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. But the lessons it holds for us on trade, make it very contemporary and very proximate.

Stephen Lamar is Executive Vice President at the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA). Steve is responsible for the design and execution of AAFA lobbying strategies on a series of issues covering trade, supply chains, and brand protection. In these roles, Steve also advises AAFA member companies on legislation and regulatory policies affecting the clothing and footwear industries. Steve is also President of the Washington International Trade Association (WITA), a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to providing a neutral forum for discussion of international trade policy and related issues.