- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 5, 2001

The United States remains the world leader in open international trade, despite the Bush administration's claim that Americans, without presidential trade-negotiating authority, are falling behind other countries.

Even though the president has lacked the authority to conclude new trade agreements for eight years, the United States has a commanding position compared with its competitors, thanks to the lucrative North American Free Trade Agreement.

Bush administration officials, who are pushing Congress to approve new negotiating authority this fall, has pointed out repeatedly that of the 130 free-trade agreements in the world, the United States is part of only two, NAFTA, and a pact with Israel.

"If the Congress stalls [in approving the authority], others will lead, the United States will fall behind, and Americans will pay the price," U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick said in a recent speech.

Mr. Zoellick, eager to restart trade talks on many fronts, wants "fast-track" negotiating powers, which the Bush administration is calling "trade promotion authority."

The power allows the president to cut trade deals and submit them to Congress for an up-or-down vote, without amendments. That way, other countries know that Congress cannot dismantle the delicate compromises wired into complex agreements.

But the focus on the number of trade agreements obscures the fact that NAFTA covers more trade than any other pact in the world, having boosted U.S. trade with Mexico from $81 billion in 1993 to $248 billion last year. It gives the United States a crucial leg up on competitors such as the 15-nation European Union, economists say.

"The number of agreements is undeniably huge," said Gary Hufbauer, an economist with the Institute for International Economics. "[But] most of them are not really … hard-core efforts at economic integration."

For example, the list includes agreements between the European Union and Liechtenstein, a tiny nation nestled between Austria and Switzerland that does not have its own currency. It also includes a pact between Estonia and the Czech Republic.

The list also includes many pacts that cannot compare with NAFTA because they are reached with exceptions that dilute their commercial value. Europe's trade deals with North African countries, for example, restrict trade of many agricultural products that are produced by southern European countries.

These agreements "are more about politics than cash," said Lori Wallach, director of Global Trade Watch, an advocacy group that opposes fast-track.

The Bush administration has employed an array of anecdotes to make its point. A thick binder of facts and figures on trade that the White House has distributed to Congress, lobbyists and journalists highlights how the United States is excluded from free-trade deals that Chile has with Canada and Brazil.

It points out, for example, that a roll of Ultra 400 film manufactured by Rochester, N.Y.-based Eastman Kodak Co. faces a 17 percent tariff in Chile, while Brazilian film faces no duties.

But the big picture tells a different story.

Two-way trade between the United States and Mexico totals $248 billion, a figure reached over the past six years as a result of NAFTA. U.S. trade with the rest of Latin American combined is $132.5 billion, nearly half the Mexican total.

Europe is negotiating with Mercosur, a South American trading bloc. But the United States still trades $1.8 billion each day with Canada and Mexico, a commercial relationship that outstrips any pact Europe could hope to have with Latin American anytime soon, economists said.

"If we didn't do anything with Latin America for a decade, it's conceivable there would be agreements with other [countries]," Mr. Hufbauer said. "But it's not about to happen."


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