NEWS ANALYSIS : Trade Pact Foes Fly the Banner of Sovereignty


For opponents of the sweeping world trade agreement that faces a critical congressional vote next week, it is not the impact on vulnerable industries and their workers that is keeping them awake at night.

It's a more fundamental, deep-seated fear of diminished American sovereignty that is giving many House and Senate members the shakes, a once-potent theme that has been relatively dormant in U.S. politics for decades.

Conservative opponents fret that the proposed World Trade Organization would undermine America's ability to control its borders and manage its economic destiny. The accord, they say, would force the nation to sacrifice domestic prosperity and self-determination as it bends to the will of global economic elites.

Many of the critics see this fearful future embodied in the new global trade regime, which will succeed the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade next year if the trade pact takes effect. Opponents express concern that the World Trade Organization will become a secretive super-government with the power to override U.S. consumer, environmental and trade laws.

Such charges underscore the extent to which the debate over a somewhat arcane trade agreement has been overtaken by resurgent populist fears of increasing internationalism and foreign intervention in U.S. affairs.

Economic nationalism, a movement with a long and colorful history in this country, is on the march again. And the trade pact is standing in the way.

Former independent presidential candidate Ross Perot is widely credited with rekindling nationalist sentiments during the 1992 campaign. Yet to a surprising extent, it is the newly dominant Republican Party--the traditional torchbearer of free trade--whose cry of alarm has become the loudest. Many leaders on the Republican right, including unsuccessful presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan, say they believe that the party must reach out to former Perot voters by pursuing a populist--and nationalistic--political agenda.

Perot's base--white, middle-class voters suffering from stagnant wage growth and declining job security--share a deep sense of anxiety about the nation's economic future. Many have become suspicious of free trade and international entanglements.

To some extent, the debate within the Republican Party over the trade issue is an element of the party's larger struggle over how to consolidate its hold on angry white men.

"It was generally agreed after the 1992 elections that whoever could corral the Perot voters would become the dominant party," Buchanan said. President Clinton "lost his opportunity to capture those people, and now the Republicans may be about to throw their opportunity away by supporting GATT."

More traditional pro-business and internationalist Republicans disagree. They worry that indulging anxious voters by opposing the trade agreement could cause the party to regress to its old isolationist roots. Many GOP moderates view the vote next week as an important indicator of the future direction of Republican foreign policy.

"The party is definitely split on GATT," said Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), a leading supporter of the trade pact in the House. "We've never had unanimity in the party on trade, but we are seeing a real erosion of Republican support for free trade this year.

"Part of it comes from an opportunity to give President Clinton a black eye, to refuse him a legislative victory," Kolbe said. "But much more troubling to me is this reversion to populist isolationism. Since World War II, we have been a party that is very pro-defense and strongly committed to involvement in the world. But I sense that something is changing in the party. And the GATT vote is a test of where we are going as a party."

To be sure, the issue has produced fissures within both parties. Many of the same liberal Democrats who opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement because of its potential impact on U.S. jobs and the environment plan to vote against the new accord on similar grounds.

Labor leaders and consumer advocates such as Ralph Nader say the agreement would open U.S. markets to a flood of cheap goods made by child workers in Third World sweatshops and undermine product-safety standards and workplace laws. Many Democratic lawmakers also oppose the pact because of home-state concerns. Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), who opposes the agreement because of its expected impact on South Carolina's textile industry, engineered a delay in the vote until next week's lame-duck session of Congress.

But there's more at work here than protectionist politics and regulatory zeal. Indeed, Republican opposition seems to reflect a broader shift in the party's outlook on the United States' role in the world.

Even though the trade agreement was crafted largely under Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, many conservatives see it as the latest in a series of efforts to enmesh the United States in a thicket of international rules and multilateral organizations. Such entanglements, they contend, severely limit America's ability to focus on its own national interests and domestic concerns.

"The Republican internationalist, free-trade tradition is clashing with the older Republican tradition of isolationism and anti-multilateralism, and that is all coming to the fore in the GATT debate," said Sandy Masur, director of international affairs for Eastman Kodak Co. and a spokeswoman for a business coalition that favors the agreement.

Above all, they see parallels between the World Trade Organization and the United Nations, which they believe has usurped U.S. independence on national security affairs. In fact, opposition to the agreement comes at a time when House Republicans, in their "contract with America," are proposing to prohibit the placement of U.S. troops under U.N. command.

"The World Trade Organization and sovereignty are the big Republican issues in GATT," said Joe Cobb, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank.

Declares Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon): "The new GATT depends on the surrender of American independence."

Critics argue that the one-nation, one-vote World Trade Organization, which would preside over a new process for resolving trade disputes, will force the United States to accept rulings that go against U.S. economic interests.

They say the current trading system is "power-based," giving the United States and other major economic powers considerably more influence in the dispute-resolution process. The new system would be "rules-based," they say, giving small, Third World nations too much clout.

"The United States benefits most from an open system, where it is free to use its superior political and economic strength as it sees fit," Hunter said.

Even though the structure of the new trade governing body was proposed by U.S. negotiators long before Clinton took office, some conservatives argue that the President's acceptance of the arrangement demonstrates his willingness to subordinate U.S. interests to international organizations.

With Republican votes critical to passage, the Administration has scrambled in recent days to assuage conservative fears on the sovereignty issue.

The White House lobbying efforts are focused on the Senate, where the vote is likely to be much closer than in the House. (Supporters will need 60 votes in the 100-member Senate to waive budget rules. The pact's tariff reductions are expected to reduce federal revenue and increase the federal budget deficit, thus violating an agreement in Congress on deficit reduction.)

Opponents of the pact are likewise concentrating on the Senate, urging members to delay the vote until after the new Congress convenes next year.

Senate Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas, concerned about growing grass-roots opposition to the pact, struck a deal this week pledging his support in exchange for a special U.S. review panel that would monitor international trade decisions. If the panel decides that U.S. interests have been jeopardized, it could trigger a congressional vote on U.S. withdrawal from the agreement.

"An understanding has been reached with Sen. Dole to reaffirm our United States sovereignty and to make sure that reaffirmation will be protected in the GATT process," Clinton said. "That means that the WTO will be accountable and fair and will meet our expectations."

But Dole's long reluctance to embrace the agreement demonstrated that Republicans are treading cautiously, trying to find a balance between the interests of the party's traditional base in the business community and its growing populist and nationalistic wing.

That, in turn, is a political dilemma that Republicans are likely to face on a wide range of issues, from immigration to tax and budget policies, as they try to become a majority party capable of holding together constituent groups with conflicting interests.

"Issues like immigration and trade are tough ones for the Republican Party today," said political analyst Kevin Phillips. "The Republican Party, like the Democratic Party, is badly split between its elites and its grass roots."

Buchanan said: "The free-trade consensus in the Republican Party has collapsed--and there is no doubt in my mind which side on this issue is the growing force within the party."

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