Wanted: Trade Breakthrough

April 22, 1992

American and European officials have worked so hard to lower expectations on trade talks today between President Bush and Jacques Delors, president of the European Community, that there are suspicions it may be a ploy to magnify their accomplishments if a breakthrough is achieved. What a nice thought! With the world wallowing in recession, nothing would be more stimulative than a strong, structured trade agreement designed to spur international commerce.

Talks under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade have sputtered so often during the past half-decade, especially over agriculture disputes between the U.S. and the EC, that there are solid grounds for pessimism. Mr. Bush, for one, may not really be anxious to push this issue during an election when the protectionists are out in force. And the key European governments remain so fearful of farm voters that they have consistently resisted what objectively seems to be a do-able deal.

If the Bush-Delors meeting flops, as have so many before, GATT will not have gasped its last. The real deadline is June 1993, when the White House loses its authority to negotiate a deal that Congress has to vote up or down in only 60 days. Nevertheless, it is downright perverse that the rest of the world has to wait while "these two big elephants [in the words of GATT director-general Arthur Dunkel] get their act together."

At stake are more than the fate of politicians and the special interests they so often represent. The well-being of peoples all over the globe would be mightily improved if a GATT agreement were implemented to cover not only merchandise, as at present, but service industries, agriculture and intellectual property rights.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, in a study timed for the Bush-Delors meeting, estimated that world sales of goods and services would rise by $195 billion per year within a decade if GATT could complete the kind of trade reform that is widely contemplated.

What makes such a huge statistical projection possible is the unprecedented sweep of what is called GATT's "Uruguay Round," so-named after the country in which negotiations began. At the inception, it was contemplated that GATT would cover only the industrial democracies and Third World nations. But with the collapse of the Soviet empire and China's petition to join GATT, there is now a chance to set trading rules for almost the entire world.

Let Mr. Bush and Mr. Delors think about that during their meeting today. The president is right to insist that the Europeans dismantle a protectionist farm-subsidy system that, according to the OECD study, serves neither the interests of consumers nor the wise use of resources. But Mr. Bush should also not be intimidated by the election-year mouthings of home-turf protectionists. A new world trade accord could be one of the seminal achievements of his presidency.

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