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Clear a Path for Free Trade

November 13, 2002

Call it economic leadership lag, the self-inflicted malady that keeps the mighty United States trailing so far behind the European Union and even small countries such as Mexico in signing free-trade agreements.

There is no single explanation for why the U.S. is a party to only three of the more than 190 free-trade agreements worldwide and only one of about 30 in the Western Hemisphere. Apparently, myopic isolationism is what happens when powerful interest groups view international trade agreements -- wrongly -- as zero-sum deals.

In truth, when a nation enters into a free-trade agreement, most farmers, workers, businesses and families benefit. Foreign markets expand, spawning domestic development, while consumers gain access to products at more competitive prices. The agreements also encourage less economically advanced nations to open their financial systems and make accounting practices more transparent so that the public can scrutinize investment choices.

To reverse the isolationist trend, U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick has been moving swiftly in international trade arenas. The U.S. is seriously engaged in global trade talks with more than 140 other members of the World Trade Organization. Zoellick's office is simultaneously wheeling and dealing on regional and bilateral agreements in the Western Hemisphere and beyond.

Last week, for example, Zoellick's office told Congress that the administration was planning to negotiate a free-trade agreement with five nations in southern Africa: Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa and Swaziland. U.S. exports to the region already amount to $3.1 billion, and total two-way trade is almost $8 billion. An accord would deepen U.S. economic and political ties to sub-Saharan Africa.

The office is also about to begin free-trade negotiations with Morocco and with five Central American nations. And it is about to finish successful talks with Chile and Singapore.

This flurry of activity, which began with the Clinton administration, got a boost in August when Congress finally decided to grant the executive branch "trade promotion authority," which allows administrations to negotiate trade deals that Congress can accept or reject but not modify.

Congress and protectionist business and labor groups in America need to get out of free trade's way.

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