Two Public Nudges Forward for U.S. Trade Policy

Today saw two nudges forward for U.S. trade policy, which has been at a standstill for quite a while now. First, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus delivered a major speech calling for a new U.S. trade policy. From Senator Baucus' speech:

“It’s time for a new blueprint on trade,” said Baucus. “And this blueprint must focus first and foremost on Asia. We must open key Asian markets, and key markets around the world, to U.S. exports. In these difficult economic times, American jobs, American workers and America’s economic growth depend on it more than ever before. ”

Moving Forward with a New Blueprint on Trade

John F. Kennedy said:

“We must trade or fade.” 

When President Kennedy said those words almost 50 years ago, the United States was pulling out of a recession. Even as the engines of growth sputtered back to life, unemployment remained high. In response, the President proposed a bold plan to revive the U.S. economy and put Americans back to work. 

In 1962, President Kennedy proposed domestic stimulus measures, such as tax cuts and more robust unemployment insurance. And President Kennedy also looked outward. He did not react to the difficult economic times by pulling back from a strong trade agenda. Instead, he pushed forward. He believed that export driven growth would utilize idle capacity, help maintain our balance of payments, and build bridges to key allies around the world.

Once again, the economy demands leadership. And the fundamental truth that President Kennedy espoused then holds just as true today. We must trade or fade.

In addition, Ed Luce writes in the FT about the words of Lee Kuan Yew, the former prime minister of Singapore who recently met with President Obama:

“You guys are giving China a free run in Asia,” [Lee] told Fred Bergsten, the director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “The vacuum in US policy is enabling the Chinese to make the running.”

“It is really important to understand just how badly the US is screwing itself on trade,” said Mr Bergsten. “By having an inactive trade policy, others are rushing to fill the vacuum.”

Mr Obama will have to deal with Beijing’s sensitivities following his recent decision to impose import duties on Chinese tyre imports, in addition to more familiar disputes over China’s lack of protection for intellectual property rights and its allegedly under-valued exchange rate.

But Washington’s lack of leadership will be most keenly felt at Apec at the weekend. “You’ve got Asian countries engaged in negotiations throughout the region and the world – over 16 [trade] negotiations completed,” said Steve Schrage at the Centre For Strategic and International Studies.

“In contrast, you’ve got a United States where there are questions about a jobless recovery, and our free-trade agreement efforts are stalled.”

White House officials have hinted that Mr Obama may be open to such a move which, they say, could help rekindle US economic leadership in Asia.

“Contrary to conventional wisdom we are not inactive,” said a senior official.

One possible silver lining could emerge if Mr Obama puts his weight behind the Transpacific Partnership – a group of small Apec members that hopes to set up open trade in the region.

The theme of the Baucus speech and Lee's warnings are the same: doing nothing means moving backward. A legacy of the Bush years, during which he talked big about trade but produced few results, the standstill on economic liberalization, especially in Asia, will hopefully be reversed quickly, aided by the popularity of President Obama that Luce cites. That said, China is quickly moving to usurp American economic leadership in Asia, and it's clear that America cannot stand by idly. Completing Doha and liberalizing trade in Asia will have to be cornerstones of a 21st century American economic strategy that allows our workers and businesses to compete globally.