Don't Balk on Free Trade

Article excerpt

IN 1986 the Uruguay Round of international trade talks kicked off in Punta del Este, amid ambitious hopes to rejuvenate the post-World War II trend toward freer world trade. That trend was virtually uninterrupted through seven rounds of multilateral negotiations under the auspices of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) beginning in 1947. But free trade lost momentum in the late 1970s and early '80s as straitened global economic conditions spawned protectionist pressures.

The delegates from more than 100 countries who launched the new round sought to revive progress in lowering tariffs and nontariff trade barriers. They also wanted to pull into GATT aspects of trade not previously covered, especially services (banking, insurance, construction) and intellectual-property rights (patents, copyrights, and trademarks).

But after four years of desultory and inclusive negotiations, and just a month before the climactic conference of trade ministers in Brussels to sign agreements, the Uruguay Round is in trouble. The pacts offered in Brussels are likely to be more narrow than expected. Some observers even worry that the round will break up with little to show.

That would be a disappointing loss. Reams of economic studies have demonstrated that, over the long haul, free trade boosts global prosperity and creates jobs. The rub, of course, is that in the shorter run free trade disrupts uncompetitive industries and can cost jobs. Especially in hard times, governments have narrow political horizons. …