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Welcome to the Most Boring News Event Ever

I have a theory: every segment of news delves into a level of detail that at least a few loyal readers find fascinating. Several -- if not dozens -- of people appreciated Creative Knitting's recent advice on cardigans, and someone, somewhere, forwarded this Journal of Accountancy story on Sec. 6055 to their friend with a series of exclamation points. But that theory is seriously tested by this week's fifth annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue, the two-day equivalent of four years at the University of Chicago.

Read this paragraph, and see how far you can get without your mind wandering: The U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue consists of meetings among four high-ranking officials from China and the United States -- U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi, and Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang -- and their staff. "It represents the highest-level bilateral forum to discuss a broad range of issues between the two nations," explains the Treasury Department.  On Wednesday Kerry and Yang will participate in "the Strategic Track Small Working Lunch," while on Thursday Kerry and Yang will participate in the "Ecopartnership Event," according to a press release outlining the event schedule. "We come to this dialogue, in particular, with a new set of opportunities and challenges," said a senior Obama administration official at a background briefing on July 8. I wrote this paragraph, and I only made it through the first sentence before I started daydreaming about the coup in Egypt.

The Dialogue is boring for a reason: its only significance is that it exists. No one is expected to say anything substantive, because neither side wants to jeopardize the event. Tensions in the relationship like hacking (more on that later), market access, human rights, and the South China Sea -- issues that readers who follow international politics are passionate about, or at least interested in -- are reduced to their most boring form. Here's how one official described it in the administration's background briefing: "Our approach to China is - for this S&ED is a key part of the President's strategy for rebalancing to the Asia Pacific region. So you can see that we are getting marching orders to continue to strengthen our cooperation with the Chinese side." Remarks like that presage an event that is the literal opposite of a media circus -- instead of colorful characters or controversies, we get men and women in sensible suits making astoundingly vague remarks. 

Consider the cyber talks, the only aspect of the Dialogue that is significantly different from years past. (Yes, all four of the high-ranking participants are different, but it's hard to find new ways to say nothing on the record.) The Chinese don't want to talk about hacking. That they agreed at all to discuss the issue was the result of at least three years of tortuous negotiations, spurred by reports of organizations affiliated with China's People's Liberation Army hacking major U.S. institutions. And after Edward Snowden's revelations about the National Security Agency's surveillance programs, the United States is also less keen to have these discussions. The press schedule for the event doesn't even include the word cyber -- it is a "sub-dialogue of the Strategic Security Dialogue," according to one of the officials involved.

Jim Lewis, a former U.S. State Department official who led eight rounds of Track II, or semi-official, negotiations with the Chinese over the last three years, has unsurprisingly low expectations for the talks that he helped create. "They will exchange some name cards and agree on an agenda for the next round of talks," Lewis, who's now a senior fellow at the D.C.-based think tank CSIS, told Foreign Policy. The United States will probably ask for a "joint statement that says we will observe existing international law;" adds Lewis, to which the Chinese will probably respond, "'Didn't we buy you off with a working group?' But the answer is no."

So why is the United States holding talks with China on these issues at all? Lewis's answer recalls Winston Churchill's famous remark on democracy. And while Lewis was talking specifically about the cyber discussions, it's the best justification I've heard for why this event happens: "There are other options, but they're all stupid."

But this is the government's show, so I'll leave you with a comment from the State Department official who went by Senior Administration Official Number One in the administration's background briefing: "I think that we're going to get ready for quite a bit of dialogue."   

Additional reporting by Noah Shachtman.  

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The French Flicks and American Beef Standing in the Way of a U.S.-EU Trade Deal

On Monday, the United States and the European Union officially launched talks on creating a new free trade zone -- one that could become the largest in the world, covering roughly $31 trillion in combined GDP and 30 percent of global trade -- by 2014. But while the U.S. and EU may be allies, don't expect the talks to go smoothly. The world's two largest economies don't always see eye-to-eye when it comes to economic and regulatory policy, and bickering over things like gluten and fancy cheese has become something of a tradition.

Back in 2009, for instance, FP's Joshua Keating reported on the outbreak of a "cheese war," in which a trade dispute over the EU's ban on hormone-treated U.S. beef provoked a retaliatory import duty on French Roquefort cheese. Here are some other lowpoints from the past decade in transatlantic trade.

French film

As anyone following U.S.-EU trade relations will quickly discover, France and the United States are prone to butting heads. Whether it's because of French ambivalence toward capitalism in general (especially the American variety) or just good old-fashioned economic self-interest, Franco-American disputes are often at the heart of U.S.-EU quarrels. This latest round of talks is no different, with the French consistently threatening to veto any agreement that fails to make an exception for French cultural subsidies, especially in music and film.

French foot-dragging on the subject is part of a government policy called "the cultural exception," which seeks to protect French language, art, and culture from what the country's leaders view as the increasing dominance of American culture and the English language. For their part, the United States fears a "give them an inch, they'll take a mile" scenario in which European countries scramble to protect favored domestic industries, defeating the entire purpose of the talks. Last month, EU ministers struck a deal to exclude France's audiovisual sector from the U.S-EU free trade agreement -- but the threat of a French veto will continue to loom over negotiations.

Where your sympathies lie in this dispute may depend on your film preferences. Which sounds more entertaining: minimalist, black-and-white meditations on adolescence, or exploding CGI robots?

American beef

Americans are pretty anxious about what's in their beef. Take the media circus surrounding the unfortunately named "pink slime," for example, or the popular schoolyard myth that Taco Bell's beef is unfit for human consumption -- not to mention the meteoric rise of organic food. While Americans have learned to suppress their unease (or pay a little extra for the peace of mind afforded by 'all-natural' meat), Europeans have pursued a regulatory solution, banning the importation of hormone-treated beef from the United States.

The beef war is one of the longest-running transatlantic trade disputes. The EU's ban on hormone-treated beef is widely supported by European consumers, but the World Trade Organization ruled in 1999 that the ban was not consistent with scientific studies, which did not find an increased health risk from consuming hormone-treated meat -- a ruling that has done little to push Europe toward accepting American beef. The ensuing series of retaliatory import duties culminated in the 2009 row over Roquefort cheese -- a U.S. measure intended to force EU compliance with the WTO ruling. A cheesepocalypse was ultimately averted when the EU lifted some import duties on naturally raised cattle. While the beef war has cooled off in recent years, Minnesota-based BEEF Magazine has expressed optimism that this newest round of negotiations could settle the issue once and for all.

Bananas

For decades, the "banana wars" frayed relations between the United States, the European Union, and assorted banana-producing countries in Latin America.

The EU, the world's largest banana market, had long extended preferential banana-trading agreements to former European colonies in Africa, the Caribbean, and the Pacific, at the expense of (largely American-owned) banana producers in Latin America. While Europe claimed that it was merely aiding third-world development (perhaps the so-called ACP countries could pull themselves up by their banana peels), the United States cried foul, and the WTO issued a series of rulings against the EU's banana favoritism. But the EU, as it is wont to do, initially refused to comply with the ruling, sparking a low-intensity trade war that at one point moved the CEO of the American-owned banana producer Chiquita to refer to the EU as an "illegal regime."

Thankfully, the banana wars came to end in 2012 with the negotiation of a new EU-Latin American trade agreement -- but not before years of acrimony and, even worse, a punitive tax on pecorino cheese.

Airplanes

The most significant ongoing dispute between the United States and European Union involves state subsidies for the rival aircraft manufacturers Boeing and Airbus. Since the early 1990s, a U.S.-EU agreement has allowed the the two governments to support their respective airline manufacturers through state subsidies and guaranteed loans. In 2004, however, the United States withdrew from the agreement and filed a WTO challenge over EU support for Airbus. Not surprisingly, the EU filed a counter-challenge over American support for Boeing. 

In 2012, the WTO ruled that both sides had violated the rules of the free trade agreement, paving the way for plenty of finger-pointing and litigation (both sides have threatened trade sanctions over the subsidies).

For transatlantic-airplane-trade-war junkies (we know you're out there), yet another conflict looms on the horizon. In November 2012, the EU decided to freeze its controversial plan to charge foreign airlines for carbon emissions on flights to and from Europe through a cap-and-trade scheme -- for one year only. Fasten your seatbelts.

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