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Former Gov. Jack Markell tackles global issues in OECD role

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Ambassador Jack Markell speaks at the opening plenary of the IEA ministerial on March 23. | PHOTO COURTESY OF OECD/REBECCA ROSS

PARIS – Former Gov. Jack Markell had been living a life of semi-retirement following the 2017 end of his second term, dabbling in advocacy, fundraising, consulting and even an unexpected turn as songwriter.

That all changed following the election of Joe Biden as president, who has now called upon his friend and confidant twice to fulfill high-profile roles. The latest role, and highest ranking position by a Delawarean in the Biden administration, was an appointment to the ambassador-level directorship of the U.S. Mission to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development.

Created to administer the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II, the OECD has grown in shape and size to become a preeminent publisher of global economic data and a venue for economic negotiations. Markell has moved to Paris, home to the OECD headquarters, where he’s meeting with 38 representatives from the world’s most-advanced economies. 

We recently spoke with Markell in one of his first interviews since he arrived in Paris. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

I want to start with current events. The OECD came out [in March], warning that the war in Ukraine could stunt global GDP and worsen inflation. I’m wondering what impact you see the war having on America?

The OECD has done some very interesting research, which they just released the other day about the potential impact on the global economy. Clearly, Russia’s invasion is causing a humanitarian disaster, and – as OECD has said – the economic damage is already being felt around the world. What I can tell you is it really makes the organization all the more important.

We get to work with 38 like-minded countries with market-oriented economies, all brought together by our shared values in democracy, rule of law, human rights and more. It really struck me how like-minded members of the OECD are across a whole range of issues and certainly, as it relates to the invasion.

Part of that recent research report from OECD suggested “targeted governmental spending” and “cautious monetary policy” in response to the war’s effects. I’m curious if you’ve mentioned that research either to the President or members of his cabinet, and whether the American stimulus to date maybe is enough to counteract some of its effects?

Well, one of the great things about the OECD is that although there is a team of us here in Paris, there is extensive engagement with representatives of the U.S. government in Washington, in particular on some of the macroeconomic issues and forecasts.

The Chair of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers Cecilia Rouse is totally plugged into that, so I will let them speak for themselves as the economists. The OECD, which really has a wide range of people who are very capable of doing this extensive research, has the convening power, and has the global reach, which enables us to make the best decisions possible because we’ve got access to the best information possible.

Ambassador Markell meets with OECD Secretary General Mathias Cormann. | PHOTO COURTESY OF OECD/REBECCA ROSS

You’re early into your assignment. Have you had a lot of time to meet with your colleagues in the OECD?

Yes. I’ve spent my time so far getting to know the team of the U.S. mission, which is a fantastic team of Foreign Service officers and representatives from the Department of Energy, Agency for International Development, and State Department as well as our local French colleagues. I’ve also spent a lot of time with the other ambassadors, both in group meetings and in one-on-one meetings, and I’ve just been so impressed with their quality and also in how like-minded everybody has been. We have a lot of really important issues. Everything from the global tax work that OECD led the way on last year to climate change to the digital economy – all of these kinds of things.

And there are so many places where U.S. priorities overlap with OECD priorities, like making sure there’s a sustainable and equitable recovery coming out of the pandemic, leveling the playing field for workers, and businesses competing in a global economy.

I feel particularly fortunate to have the opportunity to be here at this moment, because as the president, vice president and secretary of state have said: This is a moment in time where the democracies and market-oriented economic systems very much have to prove that we can deliver for our citizens, because there are other countries with different kinds of models out there. We are all totally committed to proving that democracies and market-oriented economic systems can in fact deliver.

Business as a diplomatic tool has been on display recently, including boycotts by private companies or sanctions by the U.S., U.K., and EU in the invasion of Ukraine. What does that mean to you?

Those kinds of partners make a big difference. There are a couple of advisory groups that work with the OECD, one is a business advisory group but another one is the labor advisory group, which is really important.

The president and the secretary of state have made it clear that they want the U.S. to be building a foreign policy that works for the middle class. I am absolutely convinced that by working with these like-minded countries on these issues, our foreign policy, as represented here at the OECD and around the world, can be one that works for the middle class.

Ambassador Markell presents his credentials to OECD Secretary General Mathias Cormann. | PHOTO COURTESY OF OECD/REBECCA ROSS

When President Biden came to you about the OECD post, what was that conversation like? Were you even really aware of what the OECD was?

I was aware of the OECD really for a couple of reasons. When I was in college, I was a development economics major and virtually every paper that I wrote cited the OECD.

Then as governor, particularly around the issue of education, I went around the state doing a series of 13 town hall meetings that really intended to talk to the people of Delaware about the importance of understanding that the cities, states and the countries that do a better job of educating today will do a better job of winning competitions of tomorrow. The OECD has been, for a long time, one of the premier providers of data as it relates to international education, as well as having very good analysis of best practices in real life. So, I relied on OECD data even when I was governor.

When the president called me, I was really excited because I knew about the organization, I felt like the issue set was one that I had a lot of experience with as governor, and because I understood his commitment to multilateralism. I just think this moment in time, as he said to me, is so important for us to prove that what we’re doing can work for our people, and that’s exactly what we’re focused on. That’s why I’m so excited to be here.

Is [former first lady] Carla in Paris with you? Was that a tough sell to stay in Paris for a couple of years?

She’s been back and forth. Paris is obviously a great city, but we also really love where we live near Wilmington. We’re both from Delaware and both grew up there. My mom is still there. We are very connected to Delaware, but I also feel very fortunate to have this particular opportunity.


Then-Gov. Jack Markell, center, poses during the 2010 signing of Dole Fruit to deliver to the Port of Wilmington, creating many jobs followign the Great Recession. | PHOTO COURTESY OF STATE OF DELAWARE

You spent a large part of your career in the private sector before you entered politics, eventually serving as treasurer and governor. You’re also walking into this global role in the midst of several different crises, not unlike how you entered the governorship amid the Great Recession. How did that time prepare you for a role like this?

I do feel prepared, because I do have that business experience, I do have the experience of being governor and bringing people together to achieve a common mission. I feel prepared because I understand what it means to make data-driven decisions – and even more incredibly, I made those decisions in part based on data from the OECD.

I combine that with the fact that I work with a really excellent team at the U.S. mission So, I just feel very, very lucky to be able to work with that caliber of team on issues that are so important that changing the lives of the people in our country and other countries around the world.

You’re walking into this role at maybe the most high-profile time the OECD has had in many years, as it’s discussing how to modernize the next-generation economy. One of the biggest topics is the introduction of the global minimum tax. I’m curious what impact you think that’s going to have on American business? And if you think there’s going to be an impact here for the state of Delaware, that’s kind of the incorporation capital of the U.S.?

My view of the tax negotiation is it actually represents a once-in-a-generation accomplishment for economic diplomacy and honestly for increased prosperity in the U.S. and the world.

Secretary [of State Anthony] Blinken was very clear that a shared approach on taxation really levels the playing field, for workers and for businesses. It fosters more equity within and among our nations and creates a strong foundation for countries around the world to fund and finance things that are vital to the lives of our citizens. So, when you take a look at what this represents – and this was a mammoth undertaking and a huge victory to get all of those countries to agree – I actually think it is foundational to this idea of the foreign policy for the middle class.

It’s a victory for American families who can benefit from the additional revenues that will pay for important things like infrastructure, clean energy and the like. It’s a win for businesses who can compete on a level playing field – a playing field that in many ways has been tilted against them internationally. And it provides more stability and certainty for the international business community, so that they can focus on what they actually want to focus on – their products, services and competition – rather than tax or trade disputes.

As Governor, I always felt it’s best to compete on the basis of highly-skilled citizens, state of the art infrastructure and a high quality of life.  These are races we can win, and I have always felt that U.S. workers and U.S. businesses can compete and win with the best of the best. But to do so, you need a level playing field.

One of the great things about the OECD, whether it’s on the tax issue or the work that it does around anti-bribery, anti-corruption, protection of intellectual property, procurement reform, etc., those issues very much get to the core of a level playing field. And that’s foundational to everything else we’re talking about.

This important policy initiative still needs to get ratified by Congress to be in effect for the U.S. Do you expect an uphill battle trying to convince Congress to approve the minimum tax and would you be a part of that lobbying effort?

Well, the bottom line is I’m confident that the U.S. will meet its commitments, because it’s a good thing for the U.S. and it is a good thing also for our global partners.

As for my personal involvement, I will do as asked. There’s a big team and certainly the Departments of Treasury and State really did a phenomenal job, and I am here to support them in any way.

As COVID crisis continues, I’m curious what you think the long-term effects of the pandemic might be, especially on the established Western economies that mainly make up the OECD?

First of all, it’s actually a good example of another thing that the OECD is really well suited to work on because we can convene the best experts in so many fields.

I think there are probably people who are more knowledgeable to say what the long-term effect is going to be on the global economy. I will tell you as an individual, my biggest concern is what it means for our young people in school. Both in terms of the learning loss, but also the social-emotional side of things.

My kids are grown, but obviously I know a lot of younger parents and heard about the stress for them and their children. These are really important issues, and frankly it’s been a really hard struggle for policymakers all over the world.

We are very hopeful that we are learning to live with it.

Ambassador Markell said he believes the Biden administration is committed to onshoring more industry after the pandemic. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

One of the big takeaways from the pandemic has been the supply chain impact. I’m curious if you think we’re going to see more onshoring of some of that American industry now?

It’s interesting. It’s something that President Biden ran on and it’s something he’s committed to. I think you’ve seen a lot of moves and some really significant investments in recent months by a number of big players investing in American research and manufacturing. I think that’s positive and more opportunities for our workers is obviously good.

You have been very involved in environmental efforts. I’m curious how you see the OECD contributing to that discussion on climate change and how to maybe use the power of the purse strings a little bit to influence policy?

One of the very important parts of the OECD is an organization called the International Energy Agency, which has been around for decades. They traditionally had focused a lot on the oil and gas markets, but they are really transitioning to focus on renewable energy

I think we are at this incredibly important moment in time, particularly in the face of the invasion, where we’re realizing two things can be true simultaneously.

One is that we absolutely need to pursue additional renewable energy reasons for national security. We don’t want to be dependent upon energy from people who can try to use that as a weapon, and that’s exactly what Russia has done.

At the same time, we also know we are not quite there yet in terms of being able to rely exclusively on renewable energy. The U.S. is the largest producer of oil in the world; so, we need to make sure that we are doing both simultaneously.

A couple of weeks ago, the IEA released a report on 10 things countries can do to reduce their reliance on Russian energy. They released another report on 10 things that we can do basically over the next year to significantly reduce our energy demand generally.

This is the kind of thought leadership that the OECD is capable of: bringing together great thinkers and countries that can actually make a big difference. The IEA and U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm also announced recently that all of these like-minded countries had agreed to release oil from their strategic petroleum reserves [to offset rising oil prices].

U.S. delegation to the IEA ministerial: U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry; U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm (Ministerial Chair); U.S. Ambassador to the OECD Jack Markell; Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment Jose Fernandez | PHOTO COURTESY OF OECD/REBECCA ROSS

Do you have pretty frequent contact with Cabinet members?

We are here really in large part to support their work. We have a terrific team here, but so much of the work of the OECD is done by delegates, or employees of the U.S. government across a variety of agencies.

Cabinet members are also involved here. Secretary Granholm led a meeting of the IEA in March, and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Regan was here to work with his fellow environmental ministers from around the world.

Before your appointment to the OECD, you were asked by President Biden to lead resettlement efforts of Afghan refugees following the end of the war in Afghanistan. What was that experience like?

My takeaway was that the American people are so decent, generous and good. When you get out into the country, blue and red really don’t make very much difference when it comes to serving our fellow men and women from all over the world.

I got to see the work of ordinary Americans firsthand in places like Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Houston, Kansas City, Albany, and Lansing, Mich. In Tulsa, when Catholic Charities announced that they were receiving goods for our Afghan allies and needed volunteers, a thousand people signed up within a day. And this has been repeated all over the country.

For me, it wasn’t surprising. I come from a state of such good and decent people whom I got to know so well during my time serving them. But for me to also get the chance to see it firsthand was truly remarkable.

I also saw how our veterans had such an important, authentic and compelling voice as it relates to the welcoming of our allies because they were with them in Afghanistan, and they saw how these folks put their lives on the line. So, I’m so indebted to our veterans across the country.

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