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For her diligent efforts over decades to advance the US–Japan relationship, Wendy Cutler was named the 2015 Person of the Year by the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ).

Cutler, a near 30-year veteran of the United States Trade Representative (USTR), accepted the award during a luncheon event at the Hotel Okura Tokyo on March 17. Her acceptance speech, peppered with humor and anecdotes appreciated by her USTR colleagues in the audience, covered three topics: how trade policy and US–Japan relations have changed; how the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) fits into the bilateral relationship; and the US–Japan shared trade future.

Trade policy has been transformed, since Cutler’s first days at the negotiating table for the USTR, in large part due to the players involved. “The US, Japan, the EU, and Canada influenced trade when I started in the 1980s; now we have China, India, and other emerging markets, which makes reaching a decision difficult,” she said. Cutler also pointed to the proliferation of bilateral and regional trade deals.

Cutler described her first meetings with the ACCJ as tense, as members were unhappy with the US administration’s inability “to get it right.” However, during the course of her career over the next 20-plus years, she witnessed a change “from confrontation to cooperation.”

“Those early trade war days were full of mistrust, and we were just taking it sector by sector,” she said. Round after round of negotiations ensued until at last the US and Japanese governments found compromises, and business began to flourish.

Cutler was instrumental in working with Japan toward its accession to the TPP. She admits to being “a big TPP skeptic” at first, as her experience negotiating with this country had led her to believe the government was simply not ready to make the tough decisions required to join a trade deal of such high standing.

However, Cutler admitted that, over time, her mind changed as she witnessed actions and statements by Japanese leaders that indicated they were serious about TPP, and were ready to make hard decisions. In particular, she was struck by Japan’s efforts to open its beef market.

“My Japanese counterparts raised the standards of the agreement, and were very well prepared. The negotiating dynamic was very different to [the dynamics] of the past. We had a shared purpose, so even when things got rough, we found a way forward.

“I was once introduced as the person you would want to work with you in the trenches of a trade negotiation. I really felt we were in the trenches together with Japan [during TPP talks],” she said.

Cutler then turned to the status of the TPP in Washington, DC, as the US Congress enters heated debates on the pact. Reading the newspapers, she said, it could appear that the agreement will not be passed this year. “However, I’m an optimist,” she offered.

“Our president has vocalized support, and the business community is doing the same. I urge the ACCJ to explain the agreement, and what Japan is doing, during the upcoming DC Doorknock, as well as the possible consequences in the region if the US doesn’t move on TPP quickly.”

When asked her thoughts on trade priorities now, Cutler emphasized a few areas: getting more countries to join TPP; finding a more effective way to interact with China; spurring liberalization in multilateral settings such as the World Trade Organization; enforcing existing trade agreements; and ramping up our explanations of trade in a user-friendly way.

Since retiring from the USTR in 2015, Cutler has assumed the role of vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute; she is also managing director of the group’s DC office. She is more relaxed now, she said, heeding the advice of her mentor, the late Ira Wolf, a respected ACCJ leader and USTR veteran. She also looks forward to working on issues beyond trade, namely gender issues.

ACCJ President Christopher J. LaFleur and Chairman/President Emeritus Jay Ponazecki present Wendy Cutler with the Person of the Year Award at the Hotel Okura on March 17.

ACCJ President Christopher J. LaFleur and Chairman/President Emeritus Jay Ponazecki present Wendy Cutler with the Person of the Year Award at the Hotel Okura on March 17.

Brandi Goode has been the editor-in-chief of The Journal since May 2014, and helped lead the magazine’s April 2015 relaunch.
Trade policy has been transformed since Cutler's first days at the negotiating table.