For Global Security, Fast Track Is the Wrong Path
Barely a week after the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. trade representative, Robert Zoellick, declared that the United States needs to promote free trade if it wants to combat terrorism. Zoellick's argument is completely off: We don't need to advance the free-trade status quo; we need to reverse it.
Before Sept. 11, the debates over international trade and corporate globalization represented one of the most heated political issues in the world. The red-hot dispute, often marked by energetic street protests, wasn't about whether to globalize or not to globalize, to trade or not to trade, but about what kind of trade and globalization we need.
Free traders such as Zoellick say we need less government regulation and more privatization. Fair traders say we need to give national governments the opportunity to play a role in the marketplace and create their own development strategies.
Are these debates still relevant in the wake of the terrorist attacks? They certainly are. In fact, questions about free trade versus fair trade are more crucial than they have ever been. Reducing global inequality has always been a moral imperative. Now it is also a strategic imperative.
If we hope to isolate suicidal fanatics, we need the cooperation of all the world's people. Unfortunately, the free-trade status quo has fostered a widespread resentment of the United States that presents an obstacle to cooperation.
When Americans -- the most prolific consumers of the world -- consider globalization, they likely think of cheap prices and a variety of choices. But for the producers of the world -- the vast majority of humanity -- corporate globalization often has other meanings. It means being told what to make and being offered sweatshop wages to make it. It means having your rivers polluted and your forests cut down. This isn't a recipe for winning hearts and minds. It's a blueprint for fostering alienation and bitterness.
International trade can be a force for good. It can promote international cooperation and foster tolerance. But that can happen only if trade is an exchange between equals. The current free-trade system doesn't create that sort of relationship. Rather it encourages a form of international dog-eat-dog competition.
The free-trade agenda is not working for the majority of the world's people.
A good example is Mexico, a country which for 20 years has implemented the full package of free-trade "reforms" and which has been called a "model student" by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. According to the Mexican government itself, wages in the country's manufacturing sector have dropped 21 percent since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect in 1994. The World Bank says the number of Mexicans living in poverty increased from 51 percent to 58 percent since NAFTA. And the number of Mexicans living in "severe poverty" (surviving on less than $2 a day) has grown by 4 million.
Egypt, the Arab country that has perhaps gone the furthest down the free-trade path, has also failed to achieve gains for its poor. In the 1990s, the number of people living below the poverty line in Egypt increased from 40 percent to 45 percent, according to an article by Professor Timothy Michael of New York University in the Middle East Report. The gap between rich and poor also widened during that time. According to Professor Lehman Fletcher of Iowa State University, as little as 3 percent of Egypt's population may account for half of all consumer spending.
Zoellick and congressional Republicans hope to advance their free trade agenda by securing "Fast Track Trade Promotion Authority" for the president. A vote on the issue could happen any day. Fast track would prevent Congress from changing, or even fully debating, any trade agreement negotiated by the president. It would therefore make it easier to approve trade deals such as the proposed NAFTA expansion to the entire Western Hemisphere.
If fast track is approved, Congress' ability to influence U.S. trade policy will be sharply curtailed. That would be unwise. At this difficult time, the last thing we should do is rush debate about what signals our economic policies are sending to communities around the world. We need more deliberation, not less, about whether our current trade policies are really in the national interest.
Are we doing everything we can to cultivate the goodwill of the world's people? Or are U.S. economic policies breeding a distrust of the United States that threatens to complicate efforts to bring international terrorists to justice?
Congress should develop a new kind of trade policy that will earn the United States genuine friends instead of reluctant allies. When you are on the wrong path, getting on a fast track is the last thing you want to do.
Jason Mark and Kevin Danaher are writing a book about the corporate accountability movement. They work for the international human-rights organization Global Exchange, which has created a web page to help citizens opposed fast track legislation: www.globalexchange.org/gx/fasttrack.