Waning support for international trade decried
Seattle Times business reporter
Public support for international trade has fallen sharply in the United States, and that could mean many lost opportunities for Washington state, Sen. Patty Murray told a business group Monday.
The political landscape has changed dramatically in the past few years, with Americans asking whether free trade does more harm than good, she said. Washington state businesses, more dependent on trade than their counterparts elsewhere, need to adapt to these new attitudes.
"The days when we could talk about the benefits of trade without talking about the downsides are history," Murray said, addressing the Washington Council on International Trade annual conference.
Within Congress, former strong advocates of trade are now skeptics, and people who were once skeptical are now hostile, she said.
That's a sharp contrast to 1993, the year the North American Free Trade Agreement was passed. "Everyone was talking about trade agreements and what they would accomplish," she said. "We were bringing Washington state apples to the White House in great celebration."
On Saturday, the president's Trade Promotion Authority "expired like the last episode of the 'Sopranos,' " Democrat Murray said, ending "not with a bang but a whimper."
Last renewed in 2001, the so-called "fast track" authorization lets the president and U.S. trade representatives negotiate the terms of foreign-trade agreements, sending them to Congress for a yes or no vote. Without that authority, trade representatives have far less leverage around the bargaining table, Murray said.
Before the expiry, the U.S. did sign a free-trade agreement with South Korea, which fellow Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell called "the most commercially significant trade agreement since NAFTA."
Yet the breakdown of the Doha Round of trade talks last year means the chance to work together with India and China to solve some of the hard issues such as intellectual-property protection has been lost, Ambassador Douglas Hartwick, assistant U.S. trade representative for South and Southwest Asia, said at Monday's conference.
Other countries are cutting regional or bilateral trade deals, and they don't address such difficult global issues, he said. In the meantime, the U.S. could get left out of important trade opportunities.
The U.S. government has not effectively enforced the terms of its current trade agreements, and it needs to do more to help workers whose jobs are displaced, Murray said. The Bush administration has cut workplace training by $1 billion, she said.
Businesses should lead the fight to help American workers, Murray said. Only then will they win the credibility to push for new trade agreements.
"We have been saying trade is good ever since NAFTA, and in the meantime real people have been hurt by trade," she said.
"We've seen outsourcing move up the job ladder from call-center operators to computer programmers and to engineers," Murray said. "Today when you say trade, many Americans don't think of new markets. They wonder if their job is going to be shipped overseas. They worry that one day they're going to call 9-1-1 and they'll get an operator in Bangalore."
In the climate of fear, "people don't look for opportunities, they look for security."
Yet America's turn inward comes at a time when the countries with the two largest populations in the world have a burgeoning consumer market. Over the next five years, 600 million people will join the ranks of middle class in China and India, said trade council President Kate Wilson, a Microsoft veteran who helped the company negotiate global broadband deals.
China has more cellphones than the U.S. has people, she said, adding that the top 10 percent of the population with the highest IQ in India and China is greater than the total population of North America.
Over the next 25 years, China and India will invest trillions of dollars in meeting their growing energy demands, opening the door to U.S. technology to make energy use cleaner and more efficient.
Cantwell, who also spoke at the conference, called for a national-level U.S.-China clean-energy forum in Seattle in late November. In May, Chinese National Development and Reform Commission Chairman Ma Kai confirmed the Chinese plan to attend, she said.
"Rather than competing with countries like India and China for ever-shrinking foreign oil reserves, we have a chance to export America's latest clean-energy technologies and products," Cantwell said.
India's market for renewable energy, estimated at $500 million, is growing 15 percent a year.
China's national climate-change strategy calls for a 20 percent improvement in energy efficiency by 2010 and mandates that renewable energy account for about 10 to 15 percent of the country's power supply, she added.
"The future of our country and our world depend on cleaner energy, and the Pacific Northwest can lead the way," Cantwell said. "India and China should be our partners."
Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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