Where’s the US Trade Representative?

Portman’s absence from the WTO trade nego­ti­a­tions has been obvi­ous for some months. Unit­ed States’ pri­or­i­ties lie else­where: with CAFTA, specif­i­cal­ly. He sent his Deputy to the recent Dalian meet­ing in Chi­na while he rode the ele­va­tor on Capi­tol Hill In the past I’ve down­played the dis­trac­tion fac­tor of region­al agree­ments. I’ve argued that pol­i­tics is pol­i­tics, but that the gov­ern­ments of open economies such as Aus­tralia, and the USA know that the biggest gains lie in glob­al mar­ket reform. I still hold that view. But there is mount­ing evi­dence that region­al agree­ments do dis­tract or dis­tort the atten­tion due to the WTO nego­ti­a­tions at cru­cial times. The Aus­tralian trade min­is­ter, for exam­ple, appeared to be dis­tract­ed by the prospect of nego­ti­a­tions with the USA on a bilat­er­al free trade agree­ment just before the Can­cún meet­ing and, con­se­quent­ly, was not as robust a crit­ic as oth­er Mem­bers of the Cairns group expect­ed when the US and EU put for­ward their self-serv­ing “Joint Proposal”:http://www.economist.com/agenda/displaystory.cfm?story_id=1989017 on agriculture.[1] Right now, the Bush administration’s dis­trac­tion over the pas­sage of the CAFTA bill has much more sig­nif­i­cance for the cur­rent nego­ti­a­tions. The U.S. Trade Rep­re­sen­ta­tive is almost stu­dious­ly stay­ing away: bq. “Port­man, a for­mer House mem­ber from Ohio, has spent almost every day on Capi­tol Hill since assum­ing office this spring. He press­es his case even with the most adamant anti-CAF­TA mem­bers and tries to answer con­cerns over effects on the U.S. sug­ar and tex­tile indus­tries and labor rights in Cen­tral Amer­i­ca … Last week he deliv­ered his CAFTA speech to about 10 mem­bers jammed into a Capi­tol ele­va­tor with him.”(“Associated Press(link to this excerpt)”:http://breakingnews.nypost.com/dynamic/stories/P/PUSH_FOR_CAFTA?SITE=NYNYP&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT&CTIME=2005–07-25–03-47–22) While the EC Trade Com­mis­sion­er “push­es the glob­al talks”:http://www.inquit.com/article/450/mandelson-sees-progress-claims-credit in a direc­tion that suits Europe’s lim­it­ed ambi­tions, the U.S. Trade Rep­re­sen­ta­tive is putting his efforts—and, pre­sum­ably, the Administration’s polit­i­cal cap­i­tal on trade—into a domes­tic strug­gle on a bill that has a “puny”:http://www.uscafta.org/policy/view.asp?POLICY_ID=56 poten­tial impact on US trade and wel­fare. Worse, there is some rea­son to think that the Admin­is­tra­tion may be ‘buy­ing’ sup­port for CAFTA from the pro­tec­tion­ist tex­tiles and sug­ar lob­bies: bq. “Any­thing in the right direc­tion on Chi­na is prob­a­bly help­ful on CAFTA,” said Rep. Phil Eng­lish, R-Pa., the spon­sor of the Chi­na bill who now says he will sup­port CAFTA. (“AP”:http://breakingnews.nypost.com/dynamic/stories/P/PUSH_FOR_CAFTA?SITE=NYNYP&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT&CTIME=2005–07-25–03-47–22) It may be that Portman’s agen­da is being dic­tat­ed by the ascen­den­cy of ‘geo-strat­e­gy’ over eco­nom­ic ratio­nal­i­ty in the Bush admin­is­tra­tion.  bq. “So this bill is more than a trade bill.  This bill is a com­mit­ment of free­dom-lov­ing nations to advance peace and pros­per­i­ty through­out the West­ern hemi­sphere.  And that’s impor­tant for mem­bers of Con­gress to understand.”(“Pres Bush”:http://usinfo.state.gov/ei/Archive/2005/Jul/21–602686.html) But there’s an awful lot of America’s peace and pros­per­i­ty at stake in the rest of the world, too. fn1. The dis­en­chant­ment of oth­er Cairns Group members—particularly Brazil—at Australia’s mut­ed com­plaint gave the G-20 break-away some momen­tum at its birth (I think the G-20 was an idea whose time had come in any case). There is an excel­lent account of these events in an essay by Pedro da Mot­ta Veiga in “Man­ag­ing the Chal­lenges of WTO Participation”:http://www.inquit.com/article/421/managing-the-challenges-of-wto-membership, a book of case-stud­ies I co-edit­ed ear­li­er this year (out in Novem­ber from Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press).

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