Trade at the Forefront

December 19, 1993

By almost any measure, the most significant accomplishment of the Clinton administration this year was its ability to conclude a North American Free Trade Agreement and a new (world) General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

It established as a bipartisan consensus the goal of a more open, more liberal, more prosperous global trading system -- one that will deliver more goods and services at cheaper prices to consumers almost everywhere and ease friction among nations. President Clinton's campaign pledge that economic security would be the linkage between domestic and foreign policy is now confirmed.

At the risk of indulging in American ego-centrism, it is nevertheless fair to state that if the president had been unable to gain congressional approval of NAFTA in November, the other 116 nations in GATT would have had little incentive last week to come to closure on a global accord subject to the whim of an obstreperous Congress.

Passage of NAFTA, therefore, was the mandatory first step to the most ambitious trade-opening development in history. It enabled a Democratic president to bring to fruition trade initiatives launched by his two Republican predecessors and thus rein in the very disturbing protectionist forces within his own party.

Although approval of the new GATT on Capitol Hill will not be easy -- no trade accord ever is -- the battle over NAFTA seems to have taken much of the fire out of the protectionists. Even House majority Richard Gephardt, a formidable NAFTA foe, has pronounced himself satisfied that under GATT the United States can continue to take action against unfair dumping practices abroad.

To be sure, some unhappy industries -- pharmaceuticals, textiles, motion pictures -- may line up against the new GATT or, more predictably, put pressure on the White House to keep fighting for changes in the new Geneva agreement before signature day, April 15. But that being said, the winners in this country far outnumber the losers.

Agriculture is brought into the international trading system for the first time, to the benefit of U.S. farmers. Creative Americans will have better safeguards on patents, trademarks and copyrights. Important service industries will be covered at last. Tariffs will be brought down more than a third while quotas are phased out. Billions will be added to the economy. And GATT will be replaced by a more powerful World Trade Organization once the new treaty takes effect in mid-1995.

This is an immense accomplishment. Many nations had to cooperate, many trade negotiators had to work till exhaustion -- not least the U.S. trade representative, Mickey Kantor. But without Mr. Clinton's emergence as a genuine force for open markets and liberalized trade, NAFTA and the new GATT would have been stymied. On the world scene, the new American president would not be closing the year as a leader with rising approval ratings but as a loser easily defied.

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