September 27, 1993

If NAFTA goes down the drain, can GATT be far behind? In the mind of Peter Sutherland, the forceful Irish director-general of the 116-nation General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, there is a clear and present danger that this could be the case.

The defeat of the North American Free Trade Agreement in the U.S. Congress, now an ominous probability, "would put wind in the sails of the protectionist lobby," according to Mr. Sutherland. "Those who oppose multilateralism are the same as those who would oppose regional integration."

Not that GATT doesn't already have enough troubles. Although billions -- literally billions -- of people would be covered by this most ambitious trade negotiation in history, fewer than a million French farmers are threatening to scuttle it. If they succeed, they would also deal a blow to the European Community, an advanced model of the regional economic cooperation that NAFTA could bring to the United States, Mexico and Canada.

At an EC meeting last week, France failed to force the formal reopening of negotiations on the Blair House agricultural accord completed last winter by the United States and the EC. But it took nearly an all-night debate and several screaming matches to produce this result. It might not hold.

EC trade negotiator Leon Brittan was instructed to relay France's "concerns" and hopes for new U.S. concessions when he meets today with U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor. But Mr. Kantor's office quickly retorted that the farm deal would not be reopened "directly or indirectly."

On this Mr. Kantor is correct. The Blair House accord went as far as productive American farmers can tolerate in allowing EC governments to dish out subsidies to inefficient European farmers. If trade liberalization is not to be turned into a cruel joke, the French farmers must be faced down.

Worldwide economic doldrums and unemployment are adding to the strength of protectionist impulses almost everywhere. The assault on NAFTA in Congress is just the U.S. manifestation of this situation. Japan remains hopelessly insular. The old Communist bloc is imploding. The Third World is helpless. The torch for a liberal world trade system must be carried by the Americans and the Europeans. There is no one else. If they drop it, they could ignite a bomb-burst of problems.

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