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. 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).