No longer a sleep-inducer, trade issue takes spotlight NAFTA win leaves GATT in center stage

November 22, 1993|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- In a city normally gripped by political scandals and personal peccadilloes, a funny thing has happened: Trade, that dullest of topics, a real dozer, is suddenly the sexiest subject in town.

"Hard to believe," says Diane Wildman, press aide for U.S. Trade BTC Representative Mickey Kantor. "But it's true. Everyone wants to talk about it."

Last week, it was members of Congress who debated eliminating trade barriers among the United States, Canada and Mexico, and the hemisphere tuned in. Then President Clinton took it up with leaders of the Asia-Pacific region in Seattle, commanding the attention of a wider world.

Next week, Sir Leon Brittan, Europe's top trades official, will be here to meet with Mr. Kantor for the latest episode in their long-running tiff over trade, and it will resonate across the Atlantic.

And next month, the deadline finally arrives for global agreement in Geneva on freer trade among no fewer than 116 nations -- promising front-page headlines from Alaska to New Zealand.

"When I was on the Senate Finance Committee trade staff, we were like mushrooms in the basement," says Jeffrey Lang, now a trade lawyer here with Winthrop, Stimson, Putnam & Roberts. "They came in and turned the light on every couple of years. But basically it was an obtuse, arcane area, for technicians only. But not any more."

Today, trade means jobs -- the brass ring every country is grabbing for. Trade is also viewed as a way to jump-start economies still mired in hard times.

As the spotlight shifts from the North American Free Trade Agreement to the worldwide General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), trade has become the stuff of drama, of back-room political deals here and international diplomatic tensions overseas.

Big money is at stake. According to the World Bank, a new global agreement could add $213 billion to the international economy over the next decade.

The hurdles are high, too. Agreeing to lower trade barriers between the three partners of NAFTA has been difficult, but consider the challenge of settling differences among the 116 nations -- rich and poor, industrial and agrarian, North and South, East and West -- taking part in the GATT talks.

The new dynamic will be in play when Mr. Kantor meets with Sir Leon today to try to break the deadlock in global free-trade negotiations, which have dragged on for more than seven years.

Sir Leon will not be able to complain, as he recently did, that he cannot get Mr. Kantor's attention because of the U.S. fixation on NAFTA.

Mr. Kantor now has in his pocket a regional deal creating the world's largest free-trade zone -- a new ace to strengthen his hand in an even higher-stakes global game. The way it plays out will be fascinating.

Forget the somniferous details of the problems that have stymied the GATT talks for years: European agricultural subsidies, Japanese trade barriers, U.S. textile tariffs, the theft by poor nations of the industrial world's trademarks and copyrights.

Concentrate, instead, on the plot so far: Approval of NAFTA gives the Clinton administration enormous new leverage as it pushes for successful completion of the Uruguay Round of free-trade talks under GATT in less than one month.

Not only does NAFTA put the United States firmly in the free-trade camp, says Jeffrey Lang, a trade lawyer, "it suggests the U.S. has an alternative to the GATT -- namely, development of regional relationships."

Had NAFTA been defeated, the Clinton administration's commitment to free trade would have been suspect and its international bargaining power severely reduced.

Instead, says Francis J. Gorman, international trade lawyer with Semmes, Bowen & Semmes in Baltimore, "it is just a tougher, stronger, reinvigorated U.S. that is at the table."

But time is running out. A new global trade agreement has to be completed by Dec. 15 to stay on the "fast track" through Congress. With the fast track, Congress would have 90 days from Dec. 15 to vote up or down on the pact, without changing it. Any agreement submitted after the Dec. 15 deadline would be subject to congressional amendment, making it hostage to dozens of U.S. special interest groups.

But with the NAFTA experience behind him, Mr. Clinton and his trade team may find the challenge a little less daunting.

"This was something of a purifying experience for the administration," Mr. Gorman says.

Will a strengthened U.S. president be able to beat the deadline, avoiding a legislative death by nitpicking while pulling together a global agreement to share in a multibillion-dollar payoff?

Who said trade was boring? Stay tuned.

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