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This Bridge Is Going Nowhere

An expanded NAFTA will be fought unless worker rights, environment are negotiated.

March 16, 1997|ROBERT L. BOROSAGE | Robert L. Borosage is codirector of the Campaign for America's Future

TWith Washington consumed by the metastasizing money scandal, President Clinton is about to turn to the world stage to change the subject of public attention. After summiting with Russian President Boris Yeltsin, he will revisit what he calls the major foreign policy victory of his first term: the North American Free Trade Accord. The President is poised to ask Congress for "fast track" authority to negotiate Chile's entry into NAFTA as a prelude to a hemispheric agreement on trade. The president then will make a "historic state visit" to Mexico on April 11.

But this turn to foreign policy is likely to bring the president more grief than relief. Mexico is a catastrophe, NAFTA an embarrassment. A push for "fast track" will earn the president wide editorial approval but pit him against the base of his own party and the majority of the American people.

A satirist would be hard pressed to invent a greater foreign policy debacle than the NAFTA agreement with Mexico. Virtually every fact mustered by the administration to get the deal through Congress has been revealed as fiction, every promise broken, every prediction proven wrong. The Mexican administration that was touted as a bastion of Harvard-educated democrats turned out to be corrupt and financially incompetent, its president shamed into exile. The small U.S. trade surplus with Mexico became a $16-billion-a-year deficit. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that 251,000 U.S. workers lost their jobs in the bargain. U.S. manufacturers routinely use the threat of moving to Mexico as a club against workers in wage negotiations.

In Mexico, the catastrophe knows no bounds. The U.S. bailed out speculators when the peso collapsed, but not the Mexican people. More than 1 million were thrown out of work. The middle class has been crushed. Real wages have sunk by about one-third. The proliferating companies exporting to the U.S. advertise jobs at 91 cents an hour, a fraction of pay levels in 1980. Poisonous environmental conditions on the border have gotten worse. Illegal migrants pour across as hundreds of thousands of peasants displaced from their land head north. Drugs are Mexico's largest export, and the corruption of Mexican authorities is rampant.

The administration would like to dismiss all this. It has certified Mexico as cooperating in the drug war. Two-way trade is up, apologists argue. Deficits don't matter. Mexico has repaid its debt to the U.S. (by borrowing more from the Europeans).

The president doesn't want to argue about the past but about the future. The global marketplace is a reality and "the U.S. must lead." Surely he is right about that, but it opens that obvious question: Where is the U.S. leading? The reality of the global market--and the record profits of U.S. multinationals and stagnant wages of U.S. workers--have transformed the debate over trade. The argument isn't about the catastrophe in Mexico, although that erodes the credibility of NAFTA boosters. The question is whether the U.S. will take the lead in the hard work of building sensible rules to govern the global market. Here the administration's default has been one of historic proportions. It has exerted itself mightily to protect the rights of multinational corporations, but has been essentially absent without leave in the argument over worker rights or environmental protections.

This year, the major opposition to "fast track" authority will come not from the protectionist fulminations of Pat Buchanan, but from progressives--liberal internationalists, human rights activists, environmentalists, citizen groups, union leaders and a growing portion of the public. The opposition is not arguing to shut down trade, but to outlaw child labor; not for building walls but for protecting rain forests. It wants the administration to fight for worker rights as hard as it fights for property rights. It will demand that enforceable labor rights and environmental protections be part of any fast track treaty.

With Newt Gingrich announcing that Republicans will oppose any trade agreement that requires protection of people and not just property, the president may find his bipartisan "vital center" on the wrong side of a historic struggle. He also will find NAFTA no exit from the financial scandals enveloping Washington. The vast majority of large donors to both parties are ardent supporters of free trade. A recent Bank of Boston poll shows overwhelming voter support for building labor rights into trade accords. The White House and the legislators will have choose between the interests of those who pay for their parties and the concerns of those who vote for them.

Instead of changing the subject, the president may end up getting voters more concerned about who is buying what in Washington.

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