Inclusive and transparent dialogue can fix fragile US supply chains

2020 will be remembered as the year of the pandemic. But it was also a year of reckoning for globalization writ large, and, in particular, the mechanisms of a highly interdependent and integrated global economy. Long heralded as a strength of the U.S. economy, American manufacturing’s extended and extensive supply chains were suddenly exposed as a vulnerability. 

Supply chain weaknesses exposed by COVID-19 led President BidenJoe BidenRep. Dingell hospitalized for surgery on perforated ulcer Biden administration renews Temporary Protected Status for Haiti Amash warns of turning lawmakers like Cheney into ‘heroes’ MORE to announce a comprehensive evaluation of America’s supply chain vulnerabilities in January 2021. This review is both fundamentally important and long overdue. But it will only be successful if the administration engages stakeholders effectively and works towards creating more transparent supply chains.

The pandemic’s onset threw supply chain vulnerabilities into high relief. The medical supply chain, particularly for PPE, medical devices, and of course, the pharmaceutical industry, suffered immediate interruptions. And as authorities struggled to supply hospitals and clinics with basic necessities, the shortages also stirred nationalistic objections to the export of key intermediate and finished goods. 

But vulnerabilities in the supply chain went far beyond narrowly-defined shortfalls in the health sector. The pandemic forced policymakers to redefine broadly  what goods and services should be deemed essential.

For instance, policymakers suddenly discovered that components used by the auto industry served multiple purposes, including essential uses in ventilator production. So the closure of auto parts factories also interrupted the flow of key components to the medical device sector.

Continuing shutdowns in other nations hampered U.S. recovery efforts, even after the economy began to reopen after its initial shutdown. Key components were trapped in the supply chain as other nations struggled. For example, the American government engaged in intensive negotiations with Mexican authorities to reopen factories in our southern neighbor and allow a renewed flow of intermediate components urgently needed by U.S. manufacturers. 

Public awareness of U.S. supply chain vulnerabilities provided a powerful argument in support of the Trump administration’s “America First” approach to foreign economic relations. When the pandemic hit, President TrumpDonald TrumpCheney calls Greene’s comments on House mask policy ‘evil lunacy’ Amash warns of turning lawmakers like Cheney into ‘heroes’ Karen Pence confirms move back to Indiana: ‘No place like home’ MORE had already embarked upon a three-year effort to reshore manufacturing

Yet the imperatives of battling the health crisis and restarting the U.S. economy left the reshoring impulse with little meaningful policy attention throughout 2020.

Thus, a review of supply chains has fallen to Biden administration, which is focusing on four key sectors:

  • Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (APIs)
  • Critical materials
  • Semiconductors and advanced packaging
  • Large capacity batteries for electric vehicles  

When the 100-day review concludes on June 4th, it surely will highlight the profound complexity of critical supply chains. The evaluation will also catalogue their most glaring vulnerabilities, and suggest initial pathways to reforge weak links in the chain. But lasting solutions to this policy challenge demand that the Biden administration take a number of key factors into account.  

First, supply chains are intimately connected to the dependence of U.S. firms on global business relationships that have developed since the end of World War II. In fact, economic globalization and the development of an international trade regime would have been unthinkable without the vertical integration of manufacturing processes across borders, involving trade in primary and intermediate…

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