The Trade President

May 18, 1992

Since George Bush has forfeited any credible claim to be the "education president" or the "environmental president," he might want to consider becoming the "trade president." In this area his opportunities are promising -- and even historic.

During the past week, negotiators from the United States, Canada and Mexico have been in Ottawa trying to set the stage for the framing of an agreement next month for a North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA). At the same time, President Bush was conferring with Chile's President Patricio Aylwin about a bilateral trade pact that could be the forerunner of an agreement embracing all or most of the hemisphere. This would be in line with Mr. Bush's Enterprise for the Americas vision of a hemispheric free trade zone -- one of the potentially lasting initiatives of his presidency.

Less progress has been made lately on a global pact under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. But at the top levels of government, there is still a chance for a breakthrough on the agricultural spat between the United States and the European Community. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who will preside at the July summit of the Group of Seven industrial democracies, and Mr. Bush may yet find it advantageous to work a GATT deal.

Trade and politics also intermix on NAFTA.

Mr. Bush would pick up points in the key electoral states of Texas and California by pushing through a pact beneficial to border economies.

Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, who is to visit President Bush this week, would prefer to have NAFTA out of the way before facing his voters next year. Due to some bare-knuckle American protectionism, the recent U.S.-Canadian Free Trade Association pact is currently as out of favor with Canadian voters as Mr. Mulroney himself. Yet Canada must stay in the trade game.

Mexico's President Carlos Salinas de Gortari is the man-in-a-hurry on NAFTA. After dramatically jettisoning traditional Mexican insularity to rescue his economy, he will soon face the slow loss of influence that is the fate of all Mexican presidents as they near the end of single six-year terms.

Mr. Bush, as both a Texan and an internationalist, has been sensitive to the transformation that Mr. Salinas is seeking to achieve in Mexican attitudes and policy. His willingness to open his country to investment and trade meshes neatly with Bush administration goals: 1) control of immigration across the Rio Grande, and 2) formation of a regional trading bloc to compete against the European Community and the Japanese sphere of influence on the Pacific rim.

Mr. Bush will face plenty of opposition from organized labor, from protectionist Democrats and from some environmental groups as pursues a North American Free Trade Association. But his quest is not without political payoff in Southwestern states. And if he can achieve both a NAFTA pact and a GATT pact, he will legitimately lay claim to the title of "trade president."

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