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Bring on the Warriors of Trade Protection

From steel to lumber, is U.S. trade policy on the attack?

April 19, 2002

From steel to lumber, is U.S. trade policy on the attack?

But the United States is proving that even total submission doesn’t help. Just look at Canada, which is supposed to have a free trade agreement with the United States. That should have protected its businesses from U.S. government interference.

But the U.S. trade authorities nevertheless managed to slap a huge tariff on Canadian lumber. That surely violates the spirit of the free trade agreement, if not the letter of it. But when it comes to trade, the U.S. mantra seems to be: We want it all.

The belligerent U.S. stance on trade negotiations is fomenting considerable ill will outside of the United States. These U.S. trade negotiators apparently have not yet left the bunker that they entered in the 1980s, when U.S. businesses were being clobbered by the Japanese.

Since then, the U.S. economy — left for dead by many trade strategists — has made a triumphant comeback. And yet, U.S. trade warriors, like bull terriers, apparently just can’t let go. Thus, the United States is perceived by many as the school-yard bully of international trade. Its critics claim that the United States uses its strength to push around weaker countries — while claiming for its own part to be the true victim.

Such combativeness is even more surprising given the tensions created by the war against terrorism. One might expect that the United States would be eager for smooth relations with its close (and not so close) allies on issues such as steel.

The steel flap, however, lays bare the fundamental problem created by U.S. trade policy. It is almost as U.S. policymakers — at the highest levels — fail to realize that in trade case after trade case, there is more is at stake for the world community than just who has to pay compensation to whom. At the core, it boils down to the United States’ future ability to lead.

Entrenched special interests have captured the ears of the Bush Administration, at least when it comes to trade. The result has been a weakened constituency for free trade and global engagement.

At present, neither political party can give wholehearted support to a policy direction benefiting the entire country, rather than special interests — much less for a policy direction aimed at benefiting the entire world.

It might be a good idea if U.S. trade negotiators — despite their difficult position at home — decided to turn down the heat a notch every now and then in the interest of not fanning the flames of the heated domestic and foreign debate over the U.S. role in the world trading order.

There are enough areas where U.S. toughness risks alienating its strongest supporters. Is it really necessary to add trade to the mix as well?