- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 30, 2000

Promoting free trade is becoming increasingly risky for some politicians. A coalition of forces on the left and on the right, including Buchananites, labor unions and environmentalists, have identified globalization as the principal ill that ails the nation and the world. George W. Bush's wholehearted commitment last week to broadening trade with Latin America was therefore reassuring.

Several years ago, the White House tallied the political risks of bringing down trade barriers domestically and abroad and decided they were too high to confront. The groups that are staunchly opposed to globalization are, coincidentally, some of the Democratic Party's principal contributors. After showing some initial mettle in backing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993, the administration has done little to push forward free trade agreements.

On April 8, the New York Times reported that the Clinton administration opposed a World Bank proposal that would have called on developed countries to open their markets to the world's poorest and most indebted countries. Astonishingly, the United States, which should be taking the lead worldwide in helping the emerging world develop its economies through trade, lobbied the bank to have the proposal taken out of a bank document. Unfortunately, the bank ceded to U.S. pressure. Documents prepared for discussion at the bank's mid-April spring meeting notes that ministers might want to consider opening their markets, rather than strongly recommending it. By quashing the bank's proposal, the White House not only continued restricted poor countries' access to U.S. markets, it also undermined any chance those countries may have had of gaining freer access to other industrialized countries.

Fortunately, presidential hopeful George W. Bush sees America's leadership role quite differently. "As president, I will work to create an entire hemisphere of free trade. I will work to extend the benefits of the North American Free Trade Agreement from northernmost Alaska to the tip of Cape Horn," the Texas governor told an audience of about 2,500 people on one side of a new international bridge linking Mexico and the United States. Mr. Bush's free trade convictions were refreshingly unambiguous. "As president, I will look south, not as an afterthought but as a fundamental commitment of my presidency," he added.

If elected president, Mr. Bush will have to sway trade-wary lawmakers in order to lower tariffs on exports from Latin American. This will demand political capital, something President Bill Clinton was unwilling to expend. The president's trade record with Latin America has been disappointing. The administration had pledged to help create a free trade zone in the Americas by 2005, but achieved little to further that goal after NAFTA's passage. In 1994, the White House invited Chile to become a NAFTA member, but it has been unable to garner the support from its own party for fast-track negotiating authority, which allows Congress to either pass or reject a trade agreement but restricts its power to make changes in an already negotiated pact.

During his two terms as president, Mr. Clinton became so preoccupied with the political consequences of pursuing a free trade agenda that he became largely immobilized on this front. The next administration will need a strong will to push substantive trade agreements through Congress. Mr. Bush professes an unwavering support of globalization. Hopefully he will have the opportunity to prove it.

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