Clinton Fumbles on Trade


The Seattle world trade summit will be remembered for the acrid smell of tear gas lobbed by woefully unprepared police against a rag-tag bunch of protesters, most quite peaceful. It will also go down in history as a dismal--and well-deserved--failure of President Clinton’s trade policy. He went to Seattle in the hope of launching a new round of World Trade Organization talks and perhaps even have the round named after him. But rather than leading the 135 WTO countries to a single goal, he divided them with his arrogant political grandstanding.

The Clinton administration did not have its heart in pressing a new round of trade liberalization talks. Unsure himself, the president failed to convince the American people that trade liberalization talks on a global scale were important.

Buffeted by political pressure from organized labor and fearful of angering Democratic loyalists, Clinton has lost his taste for any trade negotiations with the exception of those with China. His grand plan to create a free-trade zone throughout the Western Hemisphere, unveiled with much ado in Miami five years ago, has gone nowhere. His hope to bring the United States and Asian economies closer in an Asia-Pacific trade zone has fizzled, a victim of the Asian financial crisis and a general lack of interest.


Clinton failed again to win from Congress the so-called fast-track authority that he needs to negotiate trade agreements without fear of having them picked apart by Congress afterward. That defeat came in September 1998, at the hand of his own party, and by then he was facing an impeachment drive in the House; the authority to negotiate market-opening agreements was not on his mind.

His scorecard on trade once was far better. In his first term, Clinton racked up a remarkable record on the trade front. He pushed through a reluctant Congress the highly controversial North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada and the massive WTO agreement reached in the so-called Uruguay round.

Clinton was then a free trader, convinced that the country’s booming economy was in large part due to the unhindered flow of goods and services. By his second term, he claimed credit for more than 200 trade agreements. But it’s hard to say where he stands on trade today. He has been backtracking on NAFTA, banning Mexican truck drivers from U.S. roads and trying to please free traders and protectionists alike. In his speech to the WTO ministers last Wednesday, Clinton spoke eloquently about making the WTO the mechanism by which people “could work for a shared prosperity.” But at the same time he embraced the trade union-backed principle that most WTO member countries oppose: inserting minimum labor standards in trade agreements and imposing sanctions on countries that do not comply.

The president surely knows this position could kill trade with two-thirds of the world’s nations and convert the WTO into what its critics fear most, a club serving only its rich members. Clinton and his top trade officials went to Seattle last week without clearly articulating to the public why it is important that U.S. exporters have access to foreign markets or how they would benefit from other countries’ greater access to U.S. markets.

The WTO says it will pick up the pieces and try again early next year, hoping Seattle will be forgotten. Perhaps, but one thing it cannot count on is Clinton’s leadership.