By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 24, 2008
LIMA, Peru, Nov. 23 -- George W. Bush was the U.S. president at an economic summit here this weekend, but many foreign leaders were focused on President-elect Barack Obama instead.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper cautioned Obama against plans to rework the North American Free Trade Agreement, saying it would worsen a global financial crisis. Chinese President Hu Jintao said he hopes Obama will recognize the importance of U.S.-China ties while treading carefully on the thorny issue of Taiwan.
And Mexican President Felipe Calderón, in an impassioned speech to delegates at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum Saturday, warned Obama that any tightening of trade restrictions would send a flood of illegal immigrants into the United States.
"The next U.S. administration must assume leadership in a very firm manner -- not just for Americans but for the whole world," Calderón said.
The stern words for Obama came during an annual APEC gathering dominated by fears over the ongoing financial crisis and underscored the difficult balance that Obama must strike if he intends to forge a new economic path for the United States.
Bush returned to Washington from Peru on Sunday after securing an agreement from the 21-member group to keep trade barriers low along the Pacific Rim as leaders fashion responses to the global financial storm. The APEC statement closely mirrors a pledge signed in Washington on Nov. 15 by leaders from the Group of 20 economic powers, nine of which were represented in Lima.
The leaders said Sunday that they could overcome the financial crisis, which has the world on the edge of recession, within 18 months. But they provided few details on how they plan to do that.
Many delegates to the APEC summit said there was little point in considering additional actions until Obama gets involved. The president-elect did not send any representatives to APEC, although transition officials said Obama's team was briefed by the Bush administration before the summit.
"There's one president at a time, and we intend to respect that," said Brooke Anderson, an Obama spokeswoman.
Obama unveiled plans Saturday to create or preserve 2.5 million jobs in the United States, and is expected to name two experienced policymakers, Timothy F. Geithner and Lawrence H. Summers, to lead his efforts to address the economic crisis. Yet many of the leaders who met in Peru were clearly uneasy with Obama's campaign pledge to reform NAFTA and his opposition to several pending free-trade agreements. As a senator, Obama supported an earlier trade pact with Peru.
The nations along the Pacific Rim include powerhouses such as China, Japan and South Korea, where rapid growth is heavily dependent on open trade with the United States and other Western economies. Many of those countries have stiff tariffs and other limits in place that elicit howls from U.S. manufacturers.
Bush himself offered an implicit criticism of Obama's potential economic policies, railing against congressional opposition to the proposed trade pacts with Colombia, Panama and South Korea and warning nations against turning inward in the face of the financial meltdown. He also boasted about his record, including trade pacts with 11 nations, in a speech to business leaders here.
"Expanding trade and investment has been one of the highest priorities of my administration," Bush said.
Anderson, the Obama spokeswoman, responded by saying that Obama "believes that the goal of our trade policy must be trade that works for all people in all countries, and he supports trade that spreads the benefits of globalization, instead of steering them to special interests while we shortchange workers at home and abroad."
Obama has suggested that Bush has neglected Latin America during his presidency and has vowed to increase diplomatic and anti-drug-trafficking efforts in the region.
The Obama references at the summit were not confined to economics. Dennis Wilder, Bush's Asian affairs adviser, told reporters that the nations that agreed to push ahead with six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program were fearful of what the next administration might have in store.
"I think the very understandable concern of these foreign governments is, 'Will the new administration do some sort of policy review? Will it try to work with some new ideas?' " Wilder said of the nuclear talks. "And the one idea that all of these countries are definitely committed to is that the six-party process is the right format, the right venue. And so I think they want to, if you will, put this in the most attractive place possible so that the next American administration will see its value."
As the APEC leaders looked ahead to Obama, they also bade farewell to Bush. The White House insisted that Bush's last scheduled overseas trip was not a goodbye tour, but many foreign leaders and Bush himself seemed to disagree.
His meetings with foreign leaders, both private and public, were peppered with references to his "forced retirement," as Bush jokingly referred to it at one point. Peruvian President Alan García bounded across a reception room Saturday afternoon to shake hands with the U.S. leader he referred to as "my friend." Bush reminisced with Hu, the Chinese leader, and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.
He also joined other world leaders in donning traditional local clothing, as is the custom at APEC summits. In this case, that meant brown ponchos spun from baby alpaca shearings.
Bush even had kind words for Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, at a time when the two countries are locked in disputes over Georgia and missile defense, saying that he had always worked to maintain a "cordial relationship" with Moscow's leaders.
"I recognize I'm leaving office in two months," Bush said during his keynote speech in Peru. But, he added, he would continue to "send a message" during his last two months that "we refuse to accept protectionism in the 21st century."