Tom Donohue is CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a Co-Chair of the Trade & Investment Taskforce at B20 Saudi Arabia. The U.S. Chamber hosted a B20 Global Dialogue on 13 August, focused on building economic resilience through digital transformation. The following Q&A includes Mr. Donohue’s thoughts on trade, digitalization and the role of B20 during the COVID-19 crisis.
You are serving as a co-chair on the Trade & Investment Taskforce. How do the priorities the taskforce has set forth align with those of your members at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce?
The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of the B20’s work, and the Trade & Investment Taskforce has benefited from the excellent leadership of its Chair, Lubna Olayan, and the active engagement of CEOs from a diverse group of companies.
Our taskforce partners and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s membership—businesses of all sizes and sectors in the American economy—agree that rules-based trade is a major driver of economic growth. As such, our taskforce has made it a priority to advocate for strengthening the WTO mechanism for resolving trade disputes and modernizing rules consistent with digital transformation, sustainability needs, development objectives and job creation.
Those goals reflect both long-term strategic objectives and the immediate needs that have resulted from COVID-19. This year, the taskforce has focused a great deal on the supply chain disruptions caused by a disparate global response to the pandemic. Another area where the Chamber membership and our taskforce members align is in the belief that this is not the time to erect new barriers to commerce. Countries across the world are responding to the surge in demand for medical equipment and other related goods and services, and we all rely on the global networks that connect us.
You recently hosted a virtual event with the B20 on the importance of digitalization. Particularly in light of the current pandemic, what role do you see digital technology playing in the ways companies will be doing business in a post-COVID-19 world? What are common themes for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the B20?
Seemingly overnight, much of the world transitioned to remote working and learning. The expedited transition to online business has been possible because of massive private sector investment over the last decade in the capacity and skills needed to effectively work online. We are ready to work with our partners to make sure that the online space remains flexible, open, safe and secure. Digital empowerment and inclusion should be a priority of lawmakers across the world.
We’re hearing two things from our Chamber members—first, many businesses that have transitioned to remote work say that they are just as productive as they were when they were in the office. Second, many employees are saying that they like the flexibility of working from home. As a result, I think you’ll see a continued emphasis on digital technologies after the COVID-19 crisis ends. It will be vitally important to prioritize protecting our critical systems, automating processes and upgrading our legacy networks to help businesses scale in the new digital environment.
How does your role as head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce intersect with your role as a Co-Chair of the B20 Trade & Investment Taskforce?
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is the world’s largest business organization representing companies of all sizes across every sector of the economy. The increasingly global nature of our economy means that our members are focused on international issues as well as our domestic economic landscape. It is only natural that we responded to the elevation of G20 in 2009 with the initiative to create B20. Trade and investment has always been core to B20’s mission, which makes the work of this organization and the taskforce I serve, even more relevant to my role leading the Chamber.
As the entity leading the U.S. business delegation to the B20 Summit, why is the B20 important to the U.S. business community?
B20 has emerged as a highly credible voluntary forum of representative business organizations and executives who have strong commitment to globalization and to resilient and sustainable economic growth. It serves as a channel to the G20 policymakers engaged in coordination of macroeconomic policies. While B20 is not a substitute to trade negotiating platforms, it is a reliable sounding board for policymakers who want to avoid market fragmentation and beggar-thy-neighbor conduct.
Given the complex social, economic and public health landscape, what role do you think the B20 plays in solving these challenges?
B20 reinforces the habits of cooperation among responsible private sector participants and crafts a common language to frame the problems faced by governments. It is also a valuable trend-spotter and risk-awareness mechanism for the largest economies in the world. As such, its role will grow as long as governments continue to work together on global problems. The greatest challenges we face are shared, and the solutions to overcome them will come from strong partnerships and close collaboration between nations. As the world faces the COVID-19 crisis, one of our biggest collective challenges yet, B20 will help us emerge stronger on the other side by embracing the ties that bind us, strengthening the institutions that connect us, and promoting private-sector innovation and competition to fuel our economic recovery.