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Views from the Center


During the 1992 presidential election, Bill Clinton was pressured to reject the NAFTA trade agreement being negotiated by the first President Bush with Mexico and Canada. Instead of taking the politically easier route, Clinton committed to implement the agreement, after addressing legitimate concerns about worker rights and environmental conditions in Mexico through side agreements.

By contrast, Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY), in running for the 2008 Democratic nomination, has called for a "time out" on new trade agreements, including the ongoing (barely) Doha Round of global trade negotiations. She is responding, in part, to the extreme unpopularity of the NAFTA agreement with key segments of the Democratic base, even though the actual negative effects of the deal are vastly exaggerated. Nevertheless, a strategic review of US policy with respect to the negotiation of new bilateral trade agreements is probably overdue, especially the impact of some of the provisions on poorer countries, the effects of trade diversion for those excluded, and the broader systemic impact on the fundamental nondiscrimination norm that has long anchored the international trade system.

But in questioning the worth of reviving the Doha Round, as she did in an interview with the Financial Times, Clinton overreacts and comes across as isolationist and completely oblivious to the consequences for the poorer countries in the world. It is correct, as Clinton implies, that the economic benefits of Doha overall would be modest. The US market is already relatively open so the effects here would be small. But they could be important for some low-income countries that pay the highest tariffs remaining in the US schedule. Those tariffs, on less expensive clothing, footwear, and other products, are also regressive in their effects on US consumers, hitting the poorest at home the hardest. Perhaps most important, failure of the Doha Round could undermine support for the multilateral, rules-based system that is the only thing protecting smaller, poorer countries from predatory trade practices by the powerful.

Senator Clinton's comments on environmental provisions are also difficult to understand. There are no provisions being negotiated in the Doha Round that would "prevent countries enforcing stronger environmental and safety rules." Greater clarification of the rules on those issues may be needed, but that will not happen if the negotiations fail. Moreover, potentially important agreements to reduce fishing subsidies and barriers to environmental technologies could be lost.

Americans have real concerns about the effects of globalization, but what they need are real solutions. Clinton has made a good start with her proposal on ensuring universal access to health care. A package of domestic policies to strengthen the safety net for dislocated workers, to ensure that a lost job-whatever the cause-does not also result in lost health insurance and pensions, and to provide effective and accessible training and quality education opportunities would go much further in addressing American anxieties than scapegoating trade.

Internationally, not "pick[ing] up where President Bush left off," by turning her back on yet another multilateral initiative, would probably look to the rest of the world exactly like picking up where Bush left off on a variety of issues. That would not help to repair the US image, nor help to restore America's soft power.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.