The fate of the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement now lies in the hands of a deeply divided Democratic majority on Capitol Hill. With the conclusion of supplemental accords on labor standards and environmental safeguards by the United States, Mexico and Canada, the Clinton administration has set the stage for a major donnybrook after Congress returns from its August recess.
Protectionists will be crawling out of the woodwork, determined to scuttle a pact that is vital not only to the economy of this continent but to its security. They must be defeated.
Only a week ago, congressional Democrats were exulting in the extraordinary discipline that led to passage of President Clinton's massive plan to curtail federal deficit spending. But with NAFTA on the agenda, even House majority leader Richard Gephardt will be in opposition. The Democratic freshman class in Congress had to be restrained from going on record against the treaty right before the recess. Republicans, those hated foes of budget battles just past, will be needed in large numbers if this historic trade initiative is to prevail.
While debate will focus on the parochial gains and losses that always figure in trade agreements, NAFTA should be seen in its vast foreign policy aspects. It is, above all, the handiwork of Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who has turned his nation away from its traditional economic isolation. Only through rising living standards that hinge on foreign investment and trade, he contends, can Mexico maintain stability and restrain the exodus of its people northward.
President Bush saw how much this was in the U.S. interest. He negotiated a treaty that by slashing tariffs and other trade barriers would create a regional market of 360 million people competitive with the European Community and the Japanese-East Asia combine. But the efforts of all three governments would have come to naught if Mr. Clinton, during his winning campaign, had not declared his support for a treaty that he knew was widely opposed in his own party.
To mollify protectionists in Democratic ranks, Mr. Clinton promised to negotiate the side accords on labor and the environment that have now been completed after a requisite show of brinkmanship on all sides. Tri-national commissions will be established to monitor compliance. Violators will be subject to fines or trade sanctions imposed by the treaty mechanisms or, in Canada's case, by its own courts. Billions of dollars will be raised to clean up the U.S.-Mexican border and build the infrastructure needed for cleaner air and water.
Administration officials are insisting that the side pacts have "teeth," that they will protect American workers and improve the environment. But treaty foes are having none of it as they prepare a propaganda onslaught that free traders are poised to match in kind.
This is Bill Clinton's chance to prove he can be a bipartisan leader. He deserves fervent support.