Let the People Participate In Shaping Free-Trade Policy

If the White House wants support for a needed World Trade Organization, it must do a better job selling the plan

IN 1993, President Clinton acknowledged an ambivalence about free trade. ``For all the opportunity in this global economy, an American cannot approach it without mixed feelings.'' He then warned us that if we want a better future for our children, Americans must reach out to support freer trade.

A wide range of Americans, however, do not think they can ensure a sunny future for their children through the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Many see the costs of our trade policies in America's slums. They attribute much of America's poverty to the great ``sucking sound,'' as Mexico and other nations take jobs from once-proud workers and communities.

That is because proponents of freer trade have not fully used the opportunity given by the end of the cold war to gain greater public understanding and support for multilateral trade policies and institutions.

The price of this failure may be congressional disapproval of the Uruguay Round, a public perception that the freer trade policies are undemocratic, and an erosion of long-term public support for US leadership on freer trade policies.

The administration has provided little information as to why GATT (not a formal international institution) should be transformed into a World Trade Organization (WTO).

The administration's strategy for gaining approval of GATT/WTO relied on the business community - ignoring a diverse group of consumer, labor, civic groups, and business interests. Hence, polls reveal that many Americas now see freer trade as mainly in the interest of business, and not in their own economic interest.

Administration officials downplay these concerns. But policymakers should heed the public's fears and address them head on, as the administration ponders ways to make the proposed WTO more open to public scrutiny and involvement.

Still time to debate

It is unfortunate that a nation that cherishes the belief that informed citizens are a requisite for democracy has done such a poor job of informing its citizens about policies that have functioned for over four decades.

This can all change in the time we have left to debate GATT. Opponents and proponents of the Uruguay Round recognize that with the end of the cold war, we should debate strengthening, abandoning, or reengineering America's commitment to international institutions.

Americans understand that many of our policy problems are global, and to fully address them we must devise global responses.

Such responses may require a new balancing of our policy tools and priorities. Yet for 47 years, GATT has rested on a weak legislative foundation, with little public debate and no popular constituency.

Unfortunately, the debate over GATT/WTO has frequently been confined to a very small group of specialists and special interests. Many opponents evoke the rubric of democracy. The result? Like the two sides in the abortion debate, participants have never found common ground.

Meanwhile, the argument that GATT/WTO is undemocratic has united opponents of freer trade on the right and left, enabling them to seize a policy high ground.

The process of gaining support for GATT has further undermined its credibility as a policy in the national interest. By loading the implementing legislation with carrots for special interests, the administration and its allies only further the impression that it's typical Washington pork.

Trade and democracy

As elements of this complicated bill are revealed, it is becoming a symbol of what is wrong with Washington - which strengthens the arguments of its opponents.

Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Ralph Nader noted, ``When historians look back on this period ... either they will focus on it as a moment in which Congress resisted the antidemocratic WTO - or they will view it as the moment in which Congress ceded authority to safeguard the interests of this country and its inhabitants.''

But the debate over the WTO also provides an opportunity to reconcile freer trade and American democracy.

Let the record of freer trade policies speak: In jobs lost and gained. In benefits and costs to unskilled and skilled workers. On health and environmental standards. On American democracy.

Americans and our democracy have always adapted to political and economic realities. As the public becomes more aware of the true costs and benefits of global interdependence, it will remake trade policy to promote democratic ideals - or find new tools to order the chaotic world economy.

* Mark Ritchie is executive director of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. Susan Aaronson is an economic historian who teaches at George Washington University.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.