PRESIDENT BUSH signed an Africa trade bill yesterday, an achievement that raises broader questions about trade politics. Just a few weeks ago, Senate passage of the AGOA Acceleration Act of 2004 was deemed almost impossible amid the crush of business competing for floor time, but an imaginative coalition proved the impossible possible. The business lobby -- the standard source of advocacy for trade liberalization -- made common cause with surprising partners: religious groups such as Bread for the World, anti-poverty spokesmen such as the rock star Bono, and the Congressional Black Caucus. Thanks to this coalition, the Africa deal, which gives preferential access to the U.S. market, went through the Senate unopposed. And the administration, which had taken no great interest in the legislation until it passed, staged a showy signing ceremony.
At a time when free traders despair of getting other trade agreements through Congress, it's worth asking whether the Africa success could be extended to other regions. The administration has negotiated a free-trade area with Central America, for example, but there seems to be no prospect of getting it through Congress before the elections. Why can't the business supporters of that measure build a similar coalition, spanning religious groups and anti-poverty campaigners and the Hispanic caucus in Congress? After all, the growing influence of Hispanic voters (many of whom have Central American roots) is a central fact of the political landscape.
There are reasons to suppose that the Africa success is not repeatable. The world's most troubled continent attracts urgent sympathy from anti-poverty advocates: Bread for the World, for example, regards the Central America trade deal as beyond its mandate. But it's also clear that the anti-globalization movement of 1999-2001 was so flagrantly wrong that it has galvanized some groups to press the opposite argument. The globophobes argued that trade was harming the world's poor, when the truth is that a lack of trade, and particularly a lack of access to rich markets for farm goods and textiles, is what retards development. Nongovernmental organizations such as Oxfam, and more broadly the coalition of organizations that campaigned for Third World debt relief under the banner of the Jubilee movement, have largely abandoned their old skepticism about trade in favor of campaigns against egregious rich-world protectionism.
This may signal a political opening for pro-trade strategists. The traditional business arguments for trade are not succeeding much these days; opponents raise issues such as labor rights and the environment, which have formidable political traction. To counter that resistance, trade advocates need to show that they are for more than profits. Trade is good because it reduces poverty in countries where unimaginable poverty affects most citizens. It may take religious groups, development organizations and other non-business types to make that argument persuasively.