More than tear gas floated out of Quebec City during the Summit of the Americas this past weekend. Encircled by a hodge-podge of protesters, the 34 leaders decided free trade in the Western Hemisphere needed to be linked to something equally important: basic freedoms.
By tying a nontrade condition - democracy - to whether a nation can join the anticipated regional trade pact, the summiteers necessarily opened the door to adding other requirements, such as standards for working conditions and pollution.
In fact, President Bush defied his Republican free-trade roots and said a Free Trade Area of the Americas pact must be matched by a strong commitment to protecting labor and environmental standards.
But "matching" does not necessarily mean "linking." Nations can sign open-trade pacts while also making separate agreements for joint efforts on labor and the environment.
Such a two-track strategy by Bush was exemplified during the Quebec City summit when his aides met with a few of the nonviolent protesting groups. That was a warm-up exercise for what Bush must do with members of Congress who want to impose conditions on free-trade pacts.
In effect, Bush admits that globalization needs help on labor and environmental problems. But that doesn't mean every nation gaining a trade pact with the US must meet US standards in setting their minimum wage or cleaning up their smokestacks.
This summit was really Bush's opening act for a bigger drama: negotiating a deal with Congress about the president's ability to come up with tamper-proof trade pacts, starting first with Latin America. He hopes to win that "trade promotion authority" (or an ability to "fast track" a vote on any trade deal without congressional meddling) by the end of this year.
The US has a history of dangling access to its huge market as a lure for other nations to change their ways. During the cold war, that incentive kept many nations lined up against the Communist threat. But now that tactic needs refinement.
Free trade is becoming the global norm, and not just a tool of diplomacy. Democracy, too, has become the global standard. The two go hand in hand, and deserve a link. But adding more "links" so soon after the blossoming of free trade and democracy could jeopardize both.
The president has come a long way by deciding to promote better international working and environmental standards. That instinct should be encouraged, but not necessarily by creating a hard-and-fast link to such standards in future trade pacts.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor