- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Country by country, Trade Representative Robert Zoellick has been expanding America’s export base with countries that are relatively small individually, but collectively are forming a significant market. Last week, the United States finalized its trade agreement with Morocco, whose economy, like others the United States has opened up, isn’t terribly important for U.S. companies. Still, if you tally up all the countries that Mr. Zoellick has finished or is negotiating trade accords with, they would represent America’s third-largest export market, when compared to single countries (not trading blocs). Of course, that figure is hypothetical, but it is also illustrative.

When Congress reviews trade accords that independently don’t open up large markets, legislators should keep in mind the combined effect of these accords. This is particularly important in view of the lull in global trade talks and negotiations on establishing a free-trade area in the Western Hemisphere. Many of the negotiations for these accords were started under the Clinton administration, but the point isn’t to assign credit, but rather to stress the importance of smaller deals.

This administration has concluded trade agreements with Morocco, Chile, Singapore, Australia, Jordan and Central American countries. The agreements with Chile, Singapore and Jordan have been ratified and are in effect. Free-trade negotiations with Bahrain and Thailand are advanced, while discussions with Qatar, Kuwait and several Latin American and southern African countries are also underway. Altogether, these countries represent an export market of roughly $66 billion for the United States, just after Canada and Mexico. As tariffs are reduced, this export market is expected to grow.

This progress shouldn’t prevent the United States from striving for a breakthrough on global trade talks or a free-trade area in the Western Hemisphere. Also, there is the question of the quality of the accords, not just the quantity.

Here, the record is mixed. The trade accord with Australia, for example, established incredibly long phase-out periods for dairy and beef. Gary Clyde Hufbauer, a senior fellow with the Institute for International Economics, noted that “Many people won’t be alive by the time they liberalize” trade in these areas, given the 15- to 18-year time-frames for dropping some tariffs. Part of the problem, he said, is that lobbyists will come to expect the same protections in global and large regional deals. U.S. trade officials often maintain that agricultural liberalization will be tackled in global negotiations. While this argument may be more fairly applied to subsidies, it isn’t clear how it would apply to tariffs.

The administration should continue its efforts to close deals, and Congress should reward those efforts.

It would be nice if the United States could make brisker progress on trade, but in the convoluted and highly politicized world of trade, slow progress is preferable to stagnation.

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