Needed: A Fast Track on Trade

By R. Sean Randolph | The Christian Science Monitor, April 15, 1997 | Go to article overview

Needed: A Fast Track on Trade


R. Sean Randolph, The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

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