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Say Yes to Fast Track

By Brent Scowcroft
Sunday, October 19, 1997; Page C09


Washington is preoccupied with an intense debate over whether Congress should grant the president fast-track authority to negotiate trade agreements with other countries. Fast-track authority commits Congress to vote on proposed trade agreements without permitting amendments. Congress has provided every president since Gerald Ford such authority, recognizing that other countries are unlikely to negotiate without the assurance that agreements will not be changed during the ratification process.

Largely because of differences within his own party, the president has delayed until now seeking to renew the authority that expired with the approval of the Uruguay Round agreement in 1994. The trade and economic arguments for and against fast track are being debated vigorously. But let us not kid ourselves. The debate is essentially between those in favor of expanding trade opportunities for America and those desirous of protecting America from international competition.

For me, and for most Americans, the economic choice is clear and easy, as it was for our Founding Fathers. If the arguments of the protectionists were valid, Bangladesh and the Congo would be economic powerhouses, for they have low wages and few environmental or labor standards. Furthermore, if the protectionists were correct, we ourselves might not have drawn up a constitution, a primary impetus for which was to ban the tariff barriers that were springing up between the states under the Articles of Confederation. And we would be looking back to the golden age of the Smoot-Hawley tariff, which was instrumental in turning the 1929 stock market crash into the worst depression in history.

Important foreign policy considerations in the fast-track debate need to be acknowledged. In my time in public service, there has never been a sharp line between America's security, foreign policy and economic interests. One or the other may have been more visible at any particular time, but all interacted and complemented each other. If America does not lead on international trade, it will be harder to lead on security and political issues.

America has a privileged place among nations. It is a place we have earned through the power and appeal of our vision for a safer, better, more prosperous world. We have been willing to commit precious resources, on the battlefield and at the negotiating table, to achieve this vision. And, perhaps unique in history, we have led through the clarity of vision rather than acquisition of foreign domains. This gives us unique credibility and opportunity. We should not take this lightly, nor assume we can maintain it without investment and leadership.

We cannot say we will lead on NATO and regional security but not on trade. We cannot say we will lead on democracy and human rights but not on trade. And we cannot say we will lead on the environment but not on trade. These and other issues are all interrelated, often in complex, invisible ways. Fast-track authority is essential to being able to lead on trade. We must recognize that there will be a price if we decide to seek a la carte leadership. I am convinced it is a price we neither will want, nor can afford, to pay.

If America does not lead on international trade, either others will try to replace us, or there will be a vacuum. Neither is attractive for American workers or American policymakers. It would be naive to expect others to keep our interests paramount. Indeed, in this hemisphere, other countries already seek to supplant us. The European Union wishes to conclude a free-trade agreement with the leading economies of Latin America by 1999. European leaders tell attentive audiences in Latin America that their future is with Europe, not America. Fast-track authority is necessary to fulfill economic and foreign policy commitments made to Latin America leaders by both Presidents Bush and Clinton. Without fast-track authority, the United States will be crippled in its ability to pursue its critical agenda with our Latin neighbors.

As members of Congress debate the president's request, they need to be aware that what they say and do is watched closely overseas. Americans may tune out congressional proceedings; the opposite is true for opinion leaders watching from abroad. They listen to what is said, and they know how to count votes. Thanks to modern communications, which bring CNN to the remotest corner of the globe, a member of Congress can no longer make a constituency speech. The member is speaking, directly or indirectly, to the world. And the world is listening.

When the House and the Senate vote on fast track, our friends and allies – and our adversaries – will be watching closely. A positive vote, embracing a strong majority of Democrats and Republicans in both houses, will send an unmistakable signal about American resolve to continue to lead on international economic issues. It will also be seen as a vote of confidence in the ability of the American worker to compete globally. A weak vote or, worse, a rejection, will be read for what it is: a lack of confidence in the American worker and an unwillingness to lead on trade. This is not a vote for or against a particular president and his trade policy. It is fundamentally a vote on our capacity to continue to shape a rapidly changing global environment, not just in the economic domain but also in broader areas of politics, security, the environment, narcotics, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

If we fail to set the terms of debate on international trade, we cannot expect to lead on the full range of our other national interests. The financial markets may well judge Congress harshly if it rejects fast track. America's real penalty, however, will be a muted voice on everything else that matters.

The writer, a former White House national security adviser, runs an international consultancy advising, among others, Pennzoil Co.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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