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A Matter of Leadership

By Mickey Kantor
Sunday, September 14, 1997; Page C07


The Clinton administration and Congress are poised to begin a contentious debate that is routinely misunderstood and rhetorically misstated. The controversial debate surrounding the president's request for strengthened trade negotiating authority – known as "fast track" – is in danger of being trivialized as merely a referendum on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). This is misleading at best and potentially dangerous to U.S. foreign policy and economic interests at worst.

In reality, fast track has almost nothing to do with NAFTA and everything to do with asserting U.S. leadership to the economic, political and strategic advantage of all Americans.

Today we live in an interdependent, globalized world. No longer are we self-contained, nor is it in our interest to be so. Driven by technological change, freed of Cold War conflicts and connected by economic and other strategic interests, the era of interdependence demands negotiation, engagement and leadership. This reality is routinely ignored by those who would have us cower behind walls of fear, thus ignoring the world as it is and retreating from competition.

First, we can no longer ignore problems that occur across the border or across the ocean. Terrorism, drug trafficking, control of weapons of mass destruction, environmental concerns and economic progress are now cross-border issues. Interdependence has created an unavoidable necessity to address these and other issues, which have bilateral, regional and multilateral impact.

Second, we cannot afford to overlook foreign markets. With only 4 percent of the world's population, and 21 percent of the world's gross domestic product, the United States has become increasingly dependent upon trade in our pursuit of economic prosperity. Today 32 percent of the U.S. economy is tied to trade, and trade's share of our overall economy will continue to expand.

In fact, legions of U.S. workers and U.S. businesses owe an increasing share of their income to the ability to impact foreign markets: More than 12 million American workers owe their jobs to exports today, and the U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that by the year 2000, 16 million Americans will have export-supported jobs. These are good, high-wage jobs, paying on average 13 percent to 16 percent better than the average wage.

In addition, many politicians decry the amount of goods that the United States imports each year. But imports mean lower prices for American consumers and keep U.S. markets competitive, thereby encouraging companies to be more innovative.

The prophets of doom argue that it's not trade they're against – but unfair trade. President Clinton has taken a back seat to no one in the fight against foreign trade barriers. But someone needs to tell these people that the United States has maintained the world's most open economy for 50 years. The only way to move today to a position of greater reciprocity and fairness is by negotiating new trade agreements. As a result of the more than 200 trade agreements that the Clinton administration has negotiated, exports have increased approximately 40 percent since 1993 and are projected to reach $900 billion by the end of 1997. It is projected that the United States will reach its target of $1 trillion in exports well before the year 2000. That progress, however, came only because of fighting it out in the trenches of trade negotiations.

The inability of U.S. negotiators to reach new, balanced and fair market-opening agreements will significantly harm our ability to compete. Other countries are not sitting idly by. In the absence of U.S. leadership, other nations are forging bilateral and regional trade pacts on their own – at the expense of U.S. market share and jobs.

Third, trade is a fundamental component of U.S. foreign policy, and as such, it is an important strategic tool. Through trade agreements, the United States not only can open markets to U.S. goods and services but also develop strategic partners in key areas of the world and demonstrate the leadership that makes us the economic, military and political envy of the world. Should the United States decide to withdraw from the opportunities – and obligations – of leadership by rejecting the granting of fast-track authority, we would be sending a strong message to the world that the United States is willing to shirk its responsibility as a world leader and relinquish its quest to create an ever higher standard of living for the American people.

Let's be clear. The fast-track debate is not about any particular trade agreement, nor is it about partisanship or ideology. It is about U.S. jobs, economic growth and competitiveness. It is about embracing the new global economy and championing it. It is about assuring the world that the United States will continue to be the world leader in this new era of interdependence. In short, it is about rising to the challenges of the 21st century.

If Congress acts quickly to grant the president fast-track negotiating authority, our generation can set the capstone on 50 years of concerted, bipartisan effort to promote open markets and open government. It will enrich our people, and it will promote our security. Or we may snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. If we hesitate on fast track, 1997 may stand as a marker of when the United States, having persuaded the world to follow, ceased to lead.

The writer, the former secretary of commerce and a former U.S. trade representative, is a Washington attorney.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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