Trade Needs Presidential Leadership

June 07, 1993

President Clinton's international reputation will be on the line this summer if he decides to take on the big trade issues facing his administration. Now that he has decided to continue normal trade relations with China for another year, he will have to deal this month with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the wrangling over side agreements with Mexico and Canada. Then come negotiations for a global General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, one of the key agenda items for the Group of Seven summit in July.

Only strong presidential leadership will give these proposals a chance. They are contentious issues on the domestic scene and a severe test for the U.S. in world diplomacy. As scores of nations fight recession, protectionist temptations are strong despite almost universal recognition that increased commerce is key to global stability.

To safeguard his trade record, Mr. Clinton should stop treating NAFTA and GATT as pesky distractions. They are essential parts of his drive to reinvigorate the U.S. economy and the world economy. Unfortunately, his message has been mixed. While he insists he favors free trade, his administration is acting protectionist-tough with the European Community, Japan and Mexico.

This dichotomy over trade policy is seen in the inner councils of the administration, where various high-level personalities lobby for conflicting approaches and try to figure what can get through Congress. As Americans negotiate with the Canadians and Mexico, our neighbors often feel like pawns in an internal U.S. debate.

Witness the recent "impasse" over NAFTA side agreements. Mr. Clinton already is on record in favor of the treaty as it was signed by President Bush. But to appease important constituencies in the Democratic Party, he has to come up with trilateral agreements on labor and environmental standards that will satisfy Congress and yet be acceptable to Mexico and Canada.

The stakes are large. Commerce Secretary Ron Brown has warned that the defeat of NAFTA would be destabilizing to Mexico and a bad signal to the rest of Latin America. He also figures that NAFTA would create 200,000 jobs in this country, net, and its rejection would cost 300,000 jobs now dependent on booming U.S. exports to Mexico.

However, the only way this treaty can be sold to the country is through out-front, take-the-flak leadership from the Oval Office. It is not an easy job. Mr. Clinton has to take on organized labor and the green lobby while keeping his highly protectionist party in line. And he remains dependent on a wide measure of Republican support. Yet, only with a victory on NAFTA can Mr. Clinton set the stage for a breakthrough on the long-stalled GATT negotiations. It is up to the president -- and the president alone -- to make trade liberalization one of the great achievements of his White House years.

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