IN his economic address to Congress, President Clinton reaffirmed his intention to move ahead with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), with "appropriate safeguards for our workers and the environment." Underlying the statement is the president's concern that unfair trade practices could cost United States jobs, counteracting the promise of job creation under free trade and jeopardizing the gains in employment that are essential to his plan for economic renewal.
In view of the importance of a well-designed trade agreement to the economic, social, and environmental welfare of the continent, the president should assign the same high level of attention and talent to the international component of his economic plan as he has been devoting to the domestic component. A particularly effective way of doing this would be to ask the vice president to oversee the final negotiation and implementation of NAFTA and its parallel agreements.
Wrapping up a good trade agreement will require a combination of two skills. One is the ability to work closely with Congress to secure a strong package that will command broad support. The other is familiarity with international law and its application to enforcement of labor and environmental standards.
Vice President Al Gore Jr. is ideally suited for both tasks. He is the perfect liaison between the White House and Congress. Unlike the president, who has already twice stumbled into needless confrontations with powerful committee chairmen, the vice president is savvy in the ways of Capitol Hill. As a consummate team player, Vice President Gore will be able to marshal support from congressional power brokers to achieve the administration's legislative goals.
In the case of NAFTA, that will mean taking into account the concerns of such well-versed committee chairmen as Sen. Daniel Moynihan (D) of New York, who heads the Senate Finance Committee, and Rep. John LaFalce (D) of New York, who heads the House Committee on Small Business. Though both strongly support open trade, they are just as emphatic in pointing out that free trade must rest on a secure foundation of respect for human rights and due process, a foundation so far lacking in Mexico. Parallel misgi vings are being voiced by House Democratic Majority Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri, who warns that without strong labor and environmental guarantees, NAFTA will export good US jobs to Mexico.
These concerns about human rights and the rule of law mesh well with the vice president's interest in enforcing environmental standards. His best-selling book - "Earth in the Balance" - demonstrated both his grasp of the issues and their policy implications. Gore also won worldwide acclaim for his contribution to the United Nations environmental conference in Rio de Janeiro, where he opposed former President Bush's efforts to gut treaties that would limit damage to the global environment.
WITH labor rights and due process as well as the environment, the common denominator is the need for enforceable international standards. As free markets expand beyond national boundaries, so must the rules that protect workers, consumers, and the environment. That will require the development of appropriate international laws and mechanisms for enforcement. As he demonstrated through his support of the biodiversity treaty, Gore understands the importance of this process.
We will need such leadership to prepare the country for the new era of international trade and cooperation ahead. A first step will be to reverse the neglect of international human rights law by two successive Republican administrations. Fourteen years ago, President Carter signed the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and the American Convention on Human Rights. The former sets international labor standards that could be applied to NAFTA; the latter spells out civil and poli tical rights and creates an inter-American court to ensure respect for due process. Though Mexico has ratified both treaties, the US is unable to insist on enforcement because the Senate has yet to ratify either.
Were the president to ask the Senate to proceed with ratification and to call upon the vice president to work with the chairmen of the Foreign Relations and Finance Committees toward that end, he would be well on his way to fulfilling the goal, set forth in an address on NAFTA last October, of assuring Mexican as well as US and Canadian citizens "easy access to the courts, public hearings, the right to present evidence, streamlined procedures, and effective remedies."
The treaties would also provide an international legal foundation for the multilateral commissions the president proposes to form to enforce labor and environmental standards under NAFTA. And, since environmental standards are the least-developed in international law, one can hardly think of a more suitable negotiator than Gore. Above all, designation of the vice president as the administration's NAFTA overseer would communicate as few other actions could the priority the president attaches to fulfilling
the promises of economic and environmental reform that helped cinch the Democratic victory last November.
Mr. Clinton has personally taken charge of plans for domestic economic reform. He also has signaled his commitment to health-care reform by asking the first lady to prepare a plan for universal health insurance. He should now complement his domestic initiatives by asking the vice president to spearhead international reforms essential to the prosperity and well-being of North Americans.