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How George H.W. Bush pushed the United States to embrace free trade

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In the obituaries, George H.W. Bush is remembered as the president who oversaw the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But the leader, who died this weekend, had another major foreign policy achievement: He was a champion of free trade and a key architect of globalization, a legacy in danger under the Trump administration.

Bush saw trade as a tool for increasing international cooperation and peace, and he advocated for a liberalized economy.

“If democracy is to be consolidated, the gulfs that separate the few who are very rich from the many who are very poor, that divide civilian from military institutions, that split citizens of European heritage from indigenous peoples, these gulfs must be bridged,” he said shortly after signing the North American Free Trade Agreement in December 1992. “Economic reform must ensure upward mobility and new opportunities for a better life for all citizens of the Americas.”

Bush advocated for increased trade cooperation with China. His administration laid the groundwork for the World Trade Organization, which regulates global commerce, created in 1995.

He pushed for economic liberalization in other ways, too. After the Soviet Union fell, his administration advocated for it in Eastern Europe, and over time, the policies he supported there attracted “a wave of factory investments from global automakers, suppliers and other industries,” according to Automotive News.

As president, he ignored pleas from American automakers to protect their profits by keeping Japanese cars out of the United States, or at least making them more expensive. “There would be an immediate boost to the industry and to the economy if Japan would temporarily back off from their relentless pursuit of increased U.S. market share,” Chrysler chief Lee Iacocca wrote to the president in 1991.

Bush refused to help and would not name Japan an unfair trading partner. The president opposed government-imposed quotas and joined the leaders of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler on a trip to Japan to meet with the top officials at Toyota and Honda.

His biggest accomplishment, though, was the negotiation of NAFTA, and he signed the accord just a month before leaving office.

It was the result of years of work.

At the time, unions worried that the deal would hasten the flow of U.S. jobs to Mexico, where labor was cheaper and laws more lenient. Bush, however, saw it differently. He said the accord would open up a new market for American goods, creating more jobs.

“I think free trade is going to expand our job opportunity,” Bush said at a 1992 presidential debate. “I think it is exports that have saved us when we’re in a recession. We need more free-trade agreements.”

NAFTA would become a model for international trade deals around the world. It “was the template for dozens of trade deals done by the United States and other countries,” Robert E. Scott, the Economic Policy Institute’s chief economist, told my colleagues.

It’s a legacy that Trump seemed hellbent on reversing. As a candidate, he called the deal “an absolute catastrophe for our country.” “NAFTA has to be totally gotten rid of. Something has to happen with NAFTA,” he said in 2016.

But as president, he’s been more cautious. Though Trump pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, his administration didn’t pull out of NAFTA. Instead, the three countries renegotiated a deal — the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (signed the day Bush died) — that looks a lot like NAFTA. However, the new plan incorporates some trade-restrictive measures in an effort to keep more production in the United States.

As the New York Times put it: “However much he wants to dismantle it, Mr. Trump is still operating within the framework that Mr. Bush helped establish. While he disparaged NAFTA, Mr. Trump ultimately accepted Mr. Bush’s fundamental concept of knitting together the three great nations of North America in a single, integrated trade bloc. The alliances that Mr. Bush built and bolstered remain in place, however frayed. And a host of civil rights, environmental and other Bush-era laws still govern America.”

Read more:

Moscow looks back with nostalgia: Bush was a steady hand while Soviet Union collapsed

George H.W. Bush was the accidental catalyst that built the new Republican Party

How George H.W. Bush used handwritten thank-you notes to ink his values