Monday, April 9, 2012


No one is listening to the Obama Administration on US trade policy because no one is saying anything.

President Obama is entering his fourth year of his first term and has yet to develop any comprehensive, forward-moving US trade agenda – unless you call cherry-picking disputes with US trading partners a policy.

For the past half century US trade policymakers – in Washington, the private sector and Congress – have managed for the most part to keep trade out of partisan politics. That has led to some major advances – from the a North American Free Trade Agreement, to closer trade with Caribbean and Central American allies under the Caribbean Basin Initiative and its follow-on US-Central American Free Trade agreement along with an expanding string of bilateral free trade agreements. One also cannot discount the economic benefits of the Tokyo Round and the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations.

For sure, Americans have been split on the benefits of trade – but the matter has not been a hallmark of either national political party.

It is not so today.

The Obama Administration – and President Obama himself – are deep in the pockets of organized labor. Once a big supporter of trade agreements, labor in the mid-1960s became protectionist when then recovering economies like Japan and South Korea started producing for the US market.

Recently, a West coast partner of a major international law firm told me that he often calls the US Trade Representative’s office to get information on not-yet-fully-formulated policies that affect his clients. He said that he seldom gets an answer. So he turns to the trade experts at the AFL-CIO. Those short discussions usually result in comprehensive policy descriptions. Lo-and-behold, come a few weeks later and the AFL’s explanations emerge as full-fledged US trade policies, he said.

You can read the results in the national embarrassment of having no bilateral investment treaty program with major nations like China, India and Russia. To that you can add the killing of the 10-year-old effort to improve on global trade rules in the Doha Development Agenda of trade negotiations.

Even on old issues, such as the much-touted US free trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia, the news is not all good. The Administration has implemented the Korea accord but will not let the agreements with Panama and Colombia see the light of day.

There are still big question marks about the ongoing TransPacific Partnership trade negotiations with nine countries of the Asia-Pacific region. Labor, certainly, is not happy and will not let those negotiations come forward unless significant labor provisions to their liking – often considered purely national prerogatives by other nations – are written into the final pact.

So I guess Americans will just have to forego the benefits of freer trade and get used to sacrificing their own welfare to the whims of special interests like organized labor – to which the Administration is so beholding. Hence the silence.

Jim Berger

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