Shadow Government

Obama’s free trade shell game

Just when you think President Obama is finally serious about seeking congressional approval of pending free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea, another obstacle suddenly appears, creating more delays.  It’s like watching endless replays of Charlie Brown, Lucy, and the football.  Last week, even as U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk was making the rounds ...

Dominic Lipinski - WPA Pool/Getty Images
Dominic Lipinski - WPA Pool/Getty Images

Just when you think President Obama is finally serious about seeking congressional approval of pending free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea, another obstacle suddenly appears, creating more delays.  It’s like watching endless replays of Charlie Brown, Lucy, and the football. 

Last week, even as U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk was making the rounds on Capitol Hill extolling the virtues of free trade as an economic stimulator and jobs-creator, Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council, came forward to announce, "The administration will not submit implementing legislation on the three pending free-trade agreements until we have a deal with Congress on the renewal of a robust, expanded [Trade Adjustment Assistance] program consistent with the objectives of the 2009 trade adjustment assistance law."

TAA is yet another Big Labor demand to ostensibly help displaced works transition to new careers, but in reality is a "costly and ineffective" $2 billion program that Republicans are naturally averse to renewing in these deficit-stretching times.

But even President Obama correctly observes that what best serves U.S. workers’ interests is ever expanding international trade, saying in March 2010: "Those who once would oppose any trade agreement now understand that there are new markets and new sectors out there that we need to break into if we want our workers to get ahead."

Unfortunately, however, these words have not been matched by deeds.  Whether its futilely trying to win over Big Labor, re-opening agreements to browbeat our friends into further concessions, or developing "action plans" to submit the agreements to Congress, the result is this: as we dither, the world’s inexorable progress towards free trade continues, putting left-out U.S. companies – and workers – at a further disadvantage. 

A South Korean-European Union free trade agreement goes into effect July 1, giving the latter a step-up on their American competitors in that key market. For its part, Colombia has reached agreements with Canada and Mexico, as well as with the European Union, the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), and MERCOSUR.

It’s not just about U.S. economic fortunes either.  The damage being done to U.S. credibility around the globe is something we shouldn’t airily dismiss. The gap between our lofty rhetoric on free trade and concrete actions will easily raise doubts on other matters in our national interest, as foreign leaders and populations weigh the risks in making any commitments with the United States, lest they too be left at the altar.

Mr. President, the time for talking the talk on free trade is passed; it’s time to walk the walk.

José R. Cárdenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.

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