As Barack Obama begins to define his presidency, one pending question is what shape the new administration’s trade policy will take. For that, we’re sure to get more answers at the confirmation hearings for U.S. Trade Representative-designate Ron Kirk. But, one thing is certain. Over the past several years, trade has become something of a four-letter word for many, and Americans tend to place some of the blame for our current economic woes on trade agreements.
Despite what the Lou Dobbs’ of the world say, free trade is not the enemy. Trade critics often argue that job loss in the United States is the direct result of our trade agreements. But new data show the trade deficit decreased from $208 billion in October 2008 to $183 billion in November 2008—a $25 billion drop in just a month—even as the unemployment rate rose above 7 percent. In fact, Department of Commerce numbers show that the United States has a $10.3 billion trade surplus with its 14 free-trade agreement (FTA) partners. This should argue in favor of more trade agreements, not against.
With this in mind, the Americas Society and Council of the Americas released a major report, “Building the Hemispheric Growth Agenda: A New Framework for Policy,” detailing specific ways the Obama Administration and 111th Congress can reignite trade and integration with Latin America. The report outlines several steps that can be taken to bolster trade expansion efforts. Some that should be considered include: creation of a subgroup of willing nations to lead hemispheric energy security and climate change initiatives, increased engagement with Asia-Pacific through participation in the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership and broader cooperation with Brazil.
Increased regional integration is essential to the hemisphere’s ability to compete in the global economy. And although the deck appears to be stacked against further trade liberalization in the region, trade expansion is essential for development and opening markets for new businesses. But trade is most effective when used alongside better domestic policies on issues such as education and innovation, workforce development, labor codes, rule of law, and investment climate reforms.
Expanded trade would also help the U.S. economy recover. As former Democratic Congressman James Bacchus pointed out in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, no domestic economic recovery plan would be complete without a discussion of opening foreign markets. Now in control of both the White House and Congress, Democrats have an opportunity to forge a sensible policy that resists building new trade barriers in the name of protecting the domestic economy.
Despite what trade critics may suggest, those who support continued trade expansion want an America that works better for all its citizens and an end to poverty. Free-trade advocates simply believe that continued economic engagement with other countries is an essential tool to get there.
*Michelle Morton is a guest blogger to americasquarterly.org and director of trade policy and public affairs at the Council of the Americas.