The most free trade President?

Weak praise for G W Bush: he’s done better than others recently, according to Claude Barfield—ex US Trade Representative Counsel—in the LA Times. Barfield makes only one direct comparison: with the Clinton administration that, as he says, was stymied by a hostile Congress’ refusal to pass the negotiating authority needed to launch a negotiating round (half of them were also trying to impeach Clinton, remember?). But this was hardly the Administrations’ doing. As for GW’s record: the article acknowledges there have been some negatives: the steel ‘safeguards’ (Barfield forgets that Bush also invoked “textile safeguards”: against China) and the huge increase in farm subsidies. He might have added GWB’s spectacular failure to get even close to his “number one trade objective”: early in his first term, the Free Trade Area of the Americas. But it’s when he comes to listing the achievements that I find Barfield’s list weakest: bq. The U.S. took the lead in launching the so-called Doha round of trade talks that began in Qatar in 2001 and has advanced bold multilateral liberalization proposals, such as eliminating industrial tariffs by 2015, eliminating agricultural exports subsidies, capping agricultural tariffs at 25% and dramatically reducing internal crop subsidies. (“LA Times”:,1,6406750.story?coll=la-news-comment-opinions) The launch of the Doha Round was delayed by the lack of US negotiating authority, so the US leadership role in it’s launch is debateable. But I give the US credit for pursuing the launch so soon after the terror attacks of September 2001. It was among the few (the only?) imaginative uses of multilateral cooperation by the Bush adminstration to unite rather than divide it’s allies after the attacks. As for the other ‘bold proposals’, that’s all they are, for the most part: proposals. In fact, the US dumped it’s bold agriculture proposal in the lead-up to the Cancún meeting of WTO, settling instead with the EU for something much weaker that did not include the elimination of export subsidies[1].  It has engineered a means—still in the agriculture “framework text”:—to validate it’s $19 billion spend on “internal crop subsidies” by classifying them as ‘blue box’ payments that are not prohibited by WTO. As for industrial tariffs, the Bush administration made an even bolder proposal in 2002—to eliminate them—that was quietly buried soon after birth. This brings us to the ‘free trade agreements’ that the Bush administration has negotiated with the Central American contries (Honduras, Guatemala etc), with Chile, Singapore, Morocco and Australia.  I think all of these small agreements probably fall into the better than nothing category. None of them is truly free trade; they all omit something that proved too hard (sugar in the case of Australia). But they’re a hill of beans. They aren’t initiatives on the scale of the global leadership that we could reasonably expect from the President of the world’s largest, most productive and, in many different ways, most open economy. fn1. The terms of the proposed elimination of agricultural export subsidies were finally “put on the table”: by the European Commission last June: not by the USA at all.

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