Endgame for GATT

December 15, 1993

With closure at last within reach for a new world trade agreement before an unbreakable deadline at midnight tonight, governments around the globe are bracing for inevitable controversies at home. There will be winners and losers in every country, including this one, but only rejection by the U.S. Congress could scotch the deal. Americans can anticipate a battle royal on Capital Hill comparable to the fight over the North American Free Trade Agreement.

In the parliamentary systems of most other industrial democracies, ruling governments or coalitions usually settle such matters within the orbit of executive power. Only in the rarest of instances, usually entailing the fall of a government, is there a realistic legislative checkmate. So when Japan's Social Democrats reluctantly agreed to accept rice imports for the first time in history, that settled the question. And when France finally had its way in protecting its film and TV industry against U.S. culture shock, even a bunch of farmers occupying the Arc de Triomphe could be finessed.

Not so in the United States. American industry's unity on behalf of NAFTA is falling apart even before a new 116-nation General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade is signed. Executives of companies ranging from semi-conductors to steel, from textiles to pharmaceuticals, are already fuming over concessions made to reach an accord. They can expect to be joined by the usual protectionist suspects -- organized labor, environmentalists, super-nationalists, spokesmen for minorities. Congress will be influenced accordingly.

President Clinton, affirming his credentials as a genuine exponent of liberalized trade, called the prospective GATT pact "historic." It is that. Since 1947, global trade rules to encourage commerce have been pretty much limited to manufactured goods. The new agreement brings in agriculture, includes major service industries and provides patent and copyright protection. Despite the fudging and finagling, there can be no doubt that a "historic" breakthrough is indeed at hand.

Ironically, one thing that brought about this foreign policy achievement is Mr. Clinton's laser-like focus on domestic affairs, especially health-care reform. When former President George Bush pronounced "deadlines" -- meaning the expiration of presidential authority to obtain an up-or-down vote in Congress without treaty-wrecking amendments -- nobody believed him. They knew he would seek a renewal of this so-called "fast-track" authority. But when Mr. Clinton took over and insisted GATT had to be completed this year -- that he would not ask for renewal of fast-track authority -- his negotiating partners accepted the fact that it was now or never.

If it is now, if the champagne corks fly at midnight, we are counting on Congress to fulfill its responsibilities on GATT as it did for NAFTA. No other action would do so much to promote world prosperity and the stability it can foster.

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