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”:‑guide-to-the-wto-framework-agreement—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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