The time has come to restore momentum to the free trade process.
Significant advances have been made in recent months in areas such
as information technology and telecommunications, but to fully
assert American leadership partisan divisions in Washington must
first be overcome.
For most of the last two years, trade has taken a back seat.
Part of the reason was pure exhaustion. Pushing through the North
American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the General Agreement on
Tariffs and Trade (GATT) required huge efforts by the Clinton
administration and congressional Republicans. Last year, with
elections looming, few in either party wanted to take on new issues.
Now, in 1997, trade policy faces fresh challenges - such as how
to to restore a bipartisan consensus. This won't be easy.
Republicans, with the help of moderate Democrats, carried the day
on NAFTA and GATT. Some in both parties fought those agreements and
remain deeply opposed to the new global economy. One side stresses
sovereignty and the other jobs. Both share a nostalgic desire to
erect economic walls around America.
The first question to be resolved in building a new consensus
involves the relationship of labor and the environment to trade.
Despite the administration's urging to include these issues in all
post-NAFTA agreements, most of the world rejects the notion that
they are directly linked to trade.
Use other forums
Both issues have a place in the global policy dialogue, but
rigidly insisting on a forced marriage to trade will impede the
process of global liberalization from which most countries -
including the United States - benefit. Labor and the environment
should be the subject of serious bilateral and multilateral
discussions, in bodies such as the International Labor
Organization, but not a litmus test of trade policy.
Resolution of the labor/environment debate is the key, in turn,
to a more immediate challenge facing Washington - restoring
fast-track negotiating authority for new trade agreements.
Unfortunately for the US, the rest of the world isn't waiting.
Chile, which was repeatedly promised NAFTA membership by both the
Bush and Clinton administrations, has been kept on ice. Meanwhile,
it has associated itself with Mercosur - the emerging South
American group composed of Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay
- which in turn is positioning itself as the core of a new
hemispheric trade bloc. Chile has also concluded a separate free
trade agreement with Canada and is expanding its existing free
trade agreement with Mexico. Paralyzed by policy drift, US
leadership of the Free Trade for the Americas Agreement (FTAA)
process has foundered.
To change this dynamic, restoration of fast-track negotiating
authority is essential. At the minimum, fast track is a statement
that the US intends to negotiate seriously and to play a leadership
role in trade. Without fast track the credibility of US negotiators
is in doubt, and we will forfeit an opportunity to shape the global
trading system of the next century. …