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Who Wouldn't Trade for This?

September 13, 1996

You could have a parade right up Pennsylvania Avenue, all the countries of the world--well, almost all--marching proudly, and on their chests a bright silk ribbon signifying MFN, America's most favored nations in international trade. This is a club that would make Rotary and Kiwanis look exclusive.

The trouble is that America and its favored friends are sometimes on the outs, and even when they're not it's difficult to determine who among many might be the most favored. Last May, for instance, it took the White House no little anguish to decide that China remained one of its most favored nations. Some folks in Washington insisted that China was hardly that and wanted to deny Beijing the privileged trade status, but to no avail.

Diplomats came up with MFN back in the 18th century. Simply, it means the United States has agreed that, for example, China's exports to America will face tariffs no higher, or lower, than those of any other MFN. Economically it works, but politically membership in the club can lead to those painful comparisons that come with exclusivity. Surely old friends like the British ask why they are not more favored than China. Only a handful of countries have been blackballed: Afghanistan, Vietnam, Cuba and a few others. Iraq holds a modified MFN status.

This week in the Senate, a club of some standing itself, an attempt was made to resolve the "who's most?" dilemma. By consent, the Senate changed the term from most-favored-nation status to "normal trade relations" status. No ribbons involved, but we can expect a debate about who is more normal than whom.

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