Trade-Offs for Open Trade?

In the weeks ahead, President Bush will need some bucking up on his commitment to open trade. Lately, many nations of the world have been treating such trade without what Mr. Bush calls the necessary "moral imperative."

China and Japan, for instance, have descended into a bitter dispute over low-priced Chinese farm exports, like shiitake mushrooms. And the European Union has initially rejected a merger of two American companies, General Electric Co. and Honeywell International Inc., in a serious difference with the United States over antitrust policy.

And the EU may impose $4 billion in sanctions against the US after a ruling last week by the World Trade Organization against US tax supports for US exports. Any such sanctions, warned Trade Representative Robert Zoellick in rare ballistic language, would be like using a "nuclear weapon" on the global trading system.

And those are just the skirmishes.

A larger trade battle is now being waged in Congress, which appears ready to slap labor and environmental restrictions on the president's ability to negotiate open-trade deals. Such restrictions run the risk of scaring off nations that need a more-open American market for their exports in order to provide jobs for their poor (that's the moral imperative part).

And without that presidential authority to negotiate deals under strong US leadership, the next round of talks aimed at expanding global trade will falter again, as it did in Seattle two years ago. The WTO's 140 members hope to launch the new round of trade in November.

Bush himself raised concerns about his commitment to open trade last week by seeking a probe on whether steel imports unfairly hurt US steelmakers.

It's not easy for leaders to stand for open trade, especially when roving bands of antiglobalization protesters threaten to disrupt trade meetings.

Bush himself largely defines his foreign and trade policy as that of narrowly seeking US interests. In the short-term, open trade does often hurt many US interests - job losses, etc. But over time, the US economy adjusts and then benefits in growth, technology, and low inflation.

The president also sees open trade as uplifting the poor and promoting political freedom. Those more universal goals should not be lost as nations make a difficult transition from their protectionist past.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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