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Business, ballots and battling opioids: Why the Universal Postal Union benefits the US

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Two major UN gatherings happen next week. You’ve likely heard about the UN General Assembly meeting in New York. The other, in Geneva, you almost certainly have not. Yet it’s the Geneva meeting that may have a more immediate impact on your life; affecting every American business that ships small packages overseas, every American living abroad, and anyone with a stake in stopping the illicit opioid trade. 

At issue: Whether America remains a member of the Universal Postal Union (UPU), one of the oldest agencies within the United Nations, which allows companies and individuals to mail letters and ship products anywhere in the world.

UPU’s work is invisible to most Americans, and that’s probably as it should be. The effects of withdrawing however, could spark a very visible chaos that turns ordinary business transactions into ordeals, and shreds the bottom line of small business owners and entrepreneurs across the country. On a larger level, the UPU issue stands as a real time example of the benefits of global agreements versus the pitfalls of America “going it alone.” 

What changed?

Last October, the Trump administration announced its intention to withdraw from the UPU, protesting the rates of “terminal dues;” the fees paid by the postal operators in one country to the postal operators in the country where a package is sent. The administration was focused on China, whose low terminal dues were set in 1969, when it was a developing nation — a half century before the advent of the billion-dollar e-commerce industry. As the President’s Trade adviser Peter Navarro pointed out, that  means “it costs more to ship a package through the U.S. Postal Service from Los Angeles to New York City than it costs to ship that same package from Beijing to New York.” 

The administration is right to address this issue. The question is how. Should the administration withdraw, as it originally planned, or stay within the UPU and work toward a solution?

In this case and in the case of many other global agreements, Americans benefit most when we remain engaged and work toward a mutually beneficial outcome. 

What’s at stake for U.S. business

Consider what withdrawal would mean for U.S. small business, which President Trump has called “the engine of American prosperity.” If the administration makes good on its threat, the U.S. will be forced to negotiate postal rates with 192 individual countries.

The American e-commerce giant eBay stated that “small businesses that sell online to customers around the world could see service disruptions and dramatically increased costs for shipping through the US Postal Service.”  All this is happening as the U.S. Postal Service approaches “peak season,” when mailers and shippers are operating at capacity to fulfill orders and meet holiday deadlines.

What’s at stake for American voters

If the U.S. leaves the UPU, it’ll be just a few months shy of the 2020 primaries, potentially affecting the ability of both American service personnel and civilians living overseas to vote by absentee ballot. The U.S. Vote Foundation, a non-partisan organization that offers voting assistance to Americans abroad, calls UPU withdrawal ”a potential disaster” adding, “it would be hard to come up with a better way of undermining the overseas vote faster.”

If bilateral agreements are not in place in 192 countries, how will overseas voters secure blank ballots? (A 2016 GAO report found this to be a challenge even within the current system.) The job of returning the ballots would most likely fall to commercial carriers like FedEx and UPS. How many servicemen and women would spend the double-digit cost to mail back their ballots via commercial carriers?  This would, in effect, serve as a kind of modern-day poll tax, a discriminatory barrier to one of our nation’s most important rights of citizenship.

What’s at stake in the battle against illicit opioids

Perhaps the most surprising consequence of a U.S. withdrawal from the UPU is how it weakens our ability to block the flow of illicit opioids into our country.  According to a January 2018 report by the Senate Homeland Security Committee, more than $800 million worth of opioids were shipped from China into the U.S. over a two-year period.  

The U.S. used its membership in the UPU to institute an exchange of advance electronic data (AED) so U.S. customs authorities could better monitor and screen high risk packages. 80 nations agreed to exchange this information by 2020, and a recent Congressional law requires AED to be applied to 100 percent of incoming packages by 2021. If we pull out of the UPU, we lose access to this data. 

Fix it; don’t abandon it

The U.S. should remain in the Universal Postal Union. We know viable alternatives are being discussed in Geneva. We also know that voters want the U.S. to work within the framework of international agreements because we’ve asked. In a poll conducted this summer, voters considered how the U.S. should respond when disputes arise in the UN and the U.S. does not achieve all of its objectives. Nearly six in ten voters (59 percent) believe the U.S. should try to find a new diplomatic strategy and new allies to achieve its objectives. Only two in ten (22 percent) say the U.S. should leave the negotiating table and go it alone. 

Give U.S. businesses the predictability they need without the fear of a looming postal war. Let Americans living overseas mail their ballots cheaply and with ease. Let Congress’ efforts to battle the illicit opioid market continue. Level the playing field — don’t abandon it.   

Peter Yeo is the senior VP a the UN Foundation and president of the Better World Campaign

Tags Donald Trump Mail Postal system Transport systems United States Postal Service Universal Postal Union

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