It's a sign of the times, and usually a healthy one: a presidential campaign focusing hard on domestic policy, almost to the exclusion of foreign affairs. But whoever captures the White House will have to do something soon about the rapid erosion of U.S. credibility and leadership on trade issues.
The decline of U.S. influence was on full display during the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Seattle last year. The United States was alone in pushing its agenda, but decided to bulldoze its way through anyway.
This approach didn't work then, and it won't work in the future. So what should U.S. policymakers do? Here are some suggestions from somebody who's been there:
* Develop a new style of U.S. leadership. Some of our national leaders have been too quick to tell other countries what to do and how to do it. This approach may have worked in the days following World War II when the United States was supremely dominant. But now we need a more collegial style, with more emphasis on common ground and consensus.
* Restore fast-track negotiating authority. Fast-track authority allows the president to get congressional approval of trade agreements quickly, free of crippling amendments. Our lack of it makes other nations reluctant to negotiate with us on trade. The next president should ask Congress to give him such authority at the very start of his administration.
* Recognize the potency of the anti-globalization coalition. We shouldn't ignore worries about the borderless world - the fear that globalization is creating an imbalance between economic growth and such social objectives as promoting human rights, protecting the environment, and reducing poverty.
* Stop insisting that trade agreements contain labor and environmental standards. Developing countries resist this. They fear we are erecting barriers to their exports and their development.
* Push for regional free trade areas. Free trade areas and bilateral agreements have sprung up around the world during the past decade. The United States should support these efforts because the more ways there are to open markets and expand trade, the better off we all are. Indeed, regional groupings reinforce our vision of linking the globe. The next president should revive the proposed "Free Trade Area of the Americas" that the United States agreed to in 1994 but has since ignored.
* Understand the "new" Europe. The European community has 15 members and plans to expand further. Today's Europe wants global recognition on its own and doesn't want to be viewed as dependent upon the United States - which helps explain why U.S.-European trade relations have become so acrimonious.
* Continue to support China's entry into the WTO. China has the world's fastest growing large economy. Enormous change is occurring, and it is crucial that China join the WTO, participate in the global trading regime, and become more integrated into the international community. We must also establish "permanent normal trade relations" (PNTR) for China, which has yet to be approved by the U.S. Senate. Without PNTR, we cannot (under WTO rules) obtain the full benefits that come with China's entry into the global economy.
* Help the WTO function effectively. Consensus isn't easy when you have 137 members, but it's crucial if the WTO is to rebuild its credibility in the aftermath of Seattle.
* Allow the "new economy" to grow freely. "E-commerce" on the Internet is growing rapidly, and new technologies are moving too rapidly for government regulators to catch up. For now, we should let the marketplace sort out these activities.
World economies are more integrated than ever before, thanks to the advances in electronic and communications technology. Our challenge is to convince the world that the power and stamina of the U.S. economy is primarily the result of the disciplines, incentives, and opportunities that free markets, protected by democracy, create. Our success can be replicated around the globe if other countries will give free markets the credit they deserve and the political credibility they require.
As Benjamin Franklin once said, "Trade never ruined any nation." But that doesn't mean a nation can't ruin free trade. Let's make sure it's not us.
Published by Investor's Business Daily