Bush's Gift List for Clinton

November 24, 1992

One of the best parting gifts President Bush could leave President-elect Clinton would be a draft agreement on the most ambitious reform of the world trading system in history. Such an accord seems within reach -- if just barely -- now that the United States and the European Community have agreed to a compromise on a farm dispute that threatened a trans-Atlantic trade war and a dismal end to worldwide negotiations. France still remains to be brought into line, and after that the Japanese ban on rice imports has to be broken.

If these and other obstacles can be overcome, Mr. Clinton may find himself in a position to submit a completed treaty to Congress by early March before the current presidential prerogative to insist on an up-or-down vote without amendment expires. This would be a bonanza for the new president. It would lift confidence in the economic outlook. And it would make it easier for Mr. Clinton to roll over the protectionists in his party.

Though ratification of a global reform under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the pending North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) would occur on Mr. Clinton's watch, these pacts would be long remembered as two of President Bush's greatest accomplishments. His successor has dealt gingerly with both issues, but in the end they can confirm his bona fides as the genuine free trader he claims to be.

NAFTA is already radically transforming the U.S. relationship with Mexico. The agreement not only is a prototype for a hemisphere-wide free trade area but a form of regional bloc defense if, despite the new optimism, the GATT world system breaks down. During the campaign Mr. Clinton raised doubts about environmental and job-protection aspects of the NAFTA treaty, but since his election his comments have become more JTC positive.

The 108-nation GATT negotiation is far trickier. It is so far-reaching that it creates winners and losers in every country, not least in this one. The AFL-CIO and its allies in the Democratic Party are instinctively protectionist. That being the case, Mr. Clinton's coming to office may ironically make ratification of Mr. Bush's great initiatives more probable. If the NAFTA and GATT pacts were pushed by a Republican president in a Democratic Congress, they would unleash partisan passions. But a Democratic president, in line with the Nixon-to-China theory, may find it much easier to gain ratification.

The president-elect has evidently done his bit to further a GATT accord by letting French obstructionists know they would receive no comfort from his quarter. His statement that the United States has "only one president at a time" coincided with President Bush's threat to retaliate against EC farm subsidies. The result was last Friday's U.S.-EC agreement to lower exports of subsidized European oilseeds. This completed the isolation of France and opened the way for a frenzied push for a treaty before Christmas or before Mr. Bush leaves office. Bill Clinton has cause to rejoice.

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