Free Trade Free Fall?

Free trade's popularity has nose-dived, but is its political peril enough to stop Congress from approving four new trade agreements?

| April 12, 2007

Once considered the bastion of American capitalism, free trade is freefalling out of favor among the public and politicians alike. Whatever waning leverage the Bush administration is clinging to has all but dried up in the Democratic-controlled Congress, many members of which won pushing anti-free trade platforms.

Reporting for Foreign Policy in Focus, Laura Carlsen cites a national NBCNews/Wall Street Journal poll from March showing that 46 percent of people surveyed believe free trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) have hurt the country. Only 28 percent of those surveyed believe that they helped.

Politicians are apparently aware of the public's skepticism, according to Tom Barry, policy director for the International Relations Center, a New Mexico-based think tank. In a 'trade backgrounder' report, Barry writes that '[b]oth political parties are increasingly wary of trade measures that may increase the massive US trade deficit and anger voters tired of seeing US jobs lost to overseas production.'

Despite these negative sentiments, the Bush administration is still holding fast to free trade logic as it continues to push new free trade agreements with Peru, Colombia, Panama, and South Korea, all of which are currently sitting on the block in Congress awaiting review.

According to Carlsen, the White House appears to be paying heed to the anti-free trade crowd by shifting their rhetoric, but not their aims. For example, instead of 'free trade agreements,' the Peru and Colombia proposals have been dubbed 'trade promotion agreements.' But, Carlsen notes, the agreements are still based on the NAFTA template with the same basic tenets.

It's a template that many have criticized for securing US corporate interests by dismantling or lowering trade tariffs at a great cost to other countries. In fact, in the agreement signed with South Korea, the US slipped in two unprecedented clauses that bolster US leverage, according to Korean news source Hankyoreh. One will 'fast track' the dispute procedure and another, called 'snap back,' will allow the United States to reinstate tariffs on Korean autos should the Korean government fail to implement certain regulations. The Associated Press reports that the agreement brought 6,000 workers onto the streets of Seoul to protest on April 7.

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