Democrats Give Belligerence a Chance When it Comes to Trade


If there’s one point of agreement among all of the Democratic presidential candidates, it’s that President Bush has unnecessarily alienated the world with an approach to international security that is “arrogant,” “bullying” and “belligerent.”

Here’s former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, in a speech in Iowa in February, describing Bush’s foreign policy: “I believe that the president too often employs a reckless, go-it-alone approach that drives us away from some of our longest-standing and most important allies, when what we need is to pull the world community together in common action.”

Now here’s Dean, back in Iowa in August, telling a union audience how he would convince America’s trading partners to adopt labor and environmental laws as stringent as those in the United States: “How am I going to get this passed?” Dean asked. “We are the biggest economy in the world; we don’t have to participate in [the North American Free Trade Agreement] and we don’t have to participate in the [World Trade Organization]. If we don’t, it falls apart.”


Mr. Pot, meet Mr. Kettle.

It turns out Dean intends to talk to other countries about trade pretty much the way he says Bush talks to them about everything else. Much like Bush at the United Nations before the invasion of Iraq, Dean is offering the world a simple choice on trade: Either do things our way, or we’ll abandon the international rules and systems that we, more than any other nation, helped to build.

The point isn’t to pick on Dean -- who, heaven knows, is receiving enough negative attention from his Democratic rivals these days. Virtually every other Democratic contender is simultaneously promising to mend fences with our allies and to get tough with them over trade.

There are good arguments for both positions. But taken too far, the pledge to crack heads on trade could undermine the promise to smooth relations with the world on everything else.

“It’s a serious problem,” says James B. Steinberg, deputy national security advisor under President Clinton. “We have to think of trade as part of a seamless web of how we engage in the world. We have to see all of these pieces being connected with each other.”

Among the Democratic contenders, it’s not just Dean who is failing that test. At a debate in New Mexico this month, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina charged that Bush’s foreign policy has alienated the United States not only from Europe but also from “our friends in Latin America, in Mexico.”

Only a few weeks earlier -- at the same labor forum in Iowa that Dean attended -- Edwards said that as president he would demand Mexico renegotiate NAFTA and would oppose the completion of a free trade area linking the United States with all of Central and South America without much tougher requirements that those countries improve their labor and environmental laws.


It’s difficult to imagine anything that a President Edwards could do that would alienate the United States from Mexico more than unilaterally insisting on reopening NAFTA. For that matter, it’s difficult to imagine a more dismissive signal a president could send to America’s “friends in Latin America” than threatening to shelve the hemispheric free trade agreement unless those countries radically restructure their economies to suit our demands.

The irony in this Democratic chest-thumping on trade is that the last few weeks have offered powerful evidence for their larger case against a foreign policy built mostly on throwing our weight around.

When Bush went to the U.N. last week, he didn’t give much to the countries demanding more international say in the rebuilding of Iraq. Not surprisingly, nobody gave much back to him.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Army Gen. John Abizaid, the commander of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf, both told Congress last week not to expect many foreign reinforcements, regardless of whether the U.N. eventually approves a resolution authorizing more international help. Meanwhile, the Financial Times reported that the European Union is preparing to chip in to the estimated $20-billion cost of rebuilding Iraq’s infrastructure with a ringing contribution of $230 million.

Apparently, if you disparage and belittle people (“old Europe”), they’re not eager to bail you out of a jam. Who knew?

Even the collapse of the world trade negotiations in Cancun, Mexico, this month may have reflected lingering animosity over Bush’s bruising diplomacy. The talks failed principally because the United States and Europe refused to slash farm subsidies that protect their farmers against imports from poor countries. But “a lot of what happened in Cancun was not about trade,” as Steinberg, the director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution think tank, notes. “It was a broader reaction to the way we want people to help us when it suits us, but we’re not responsive to their concerns.”


If resentment over security issues can poison economic negotiations, the reverse is also true: A Democratic president who tries to bully the world on trade could alienate other countries just as surely as Bush did on Iraq. That doesn’t mean legitimate trade concerns have to be sublimated to maintaining security alliances, as they were in the Cold War.

It just means any president has to maintain a sense of proportion about how much change the United States can demand in other societies as the price of obtaining access to our markets.

Any Democratic president, given the prominence of organized labor in the party, will push harder than Bush for reform in developing countries that provide their producers an unfair cost advantage by allowing them to pollute the environment or exploit their workers. To a point, that emphasis benefits workers in America and around the world.

But promises from several Democrats to impose punitive tariffs on countries that don’t meet our expectations in their labor and environmental laws -- much less Dean’s pledge to use trade talks to pressure every nation on the globe to match U.S. standards on those fronts -- are a recipe for endless conflict.

If the Democrats really intend to take more account than Bush of the world’s opinion, they will have to demonstrate it not just on questions of war and peace, where their most ardent partisans want the whole world to hold hands. They’ll also have to prove it on the trade disputes where their base is clamoring for the cudgels.


Ronald Brownstein’s column appears every Monday. See current and past Brownstein columns on The Times’ Web site at