Clinton risks free trade if not on track

This time the differences in opinion between President Clinton and Congress could not only slow progress in America, but internationally as well. Clinton met leaders from 33 Western Hemisphere nations last weekend in Santiago, Chile, for the second Summit of Americas. Although the meetings mainly focused on social issues, leaders also discussed plans for the world’s most extensive free trade accord. The Free Trade Areas of the Americas, proposed in Miami four years ago at the first summit, would extend from Alaska to Cape Horn. The $10 trillion combined economy, affecting 800 million people, would further the economic and social development of the Americas. With the United States contributing 85 percent of the region’s wealth under the pact, Clinton’s involvement is crucial. But his lack of fast-track authority will circumvent his negotiating power. More importantly, it could thwart the establishment of the FTAA, which leaders want to accomplish by the year 2005.
If Clinton had fast-track authority, he could negotiate agreements such as free trade pacts that Congress could approve or reject, but not amend. Fast track makes negotiations more expeditious and binding. But last November, Clinton withdrew his request for fast track after labor unions and environmentalists lobbied against it — for good reason. Many Democrats in Congress argued that the policy lacked standards for labor rights and environmental laws. But their concerns were not sufficiently addressed by Clinton, risking future requests for fast track.
Most Latin American leaders will not form trade accords with Clinton unless he has fast track. Under current conditions, they fear, Congress can easily amend or nullify agreements. It was early this year that Clinton couldn’t admit Chile into the North American Free Trade Agreement because Congress objected. At the first summit, Latin American countries supported the FTAA, assuming they would eventually join NAFTA. Since then, the United States has deserted its central role in free trade talks in the Western Hemisphere.
A concrete discussion on the FTAA is scheduled to begin in Miami on Sept. 30. In the meantime, the Mercosur Customs Union — consisting of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay — is pursuing its own trade pacts. Already one of the world’s largest free trade blocs, the union wants to include Central American states. Next year, Mercosur will begin trade talks with the 15-nation European Union. Such projected alliances are likely to threaten American businesses.
Leaders at the summit formed a social action plan to tackle problems such as poverty, child labor and lack of education. They also emphasized that the FTAA would promote workers’ rights as well as environmental standards. Clinton should point to these facts to support his request for fast track. While the United States is needed for the FTAA to come into effect, other nations will pursue separate trade alliances without it. In the interest of U.S. citizens, as well as those of other Western Hemisphere countries, Clinton must convince Congress to grant him fast track. But if he fails to address opponents’ arguments the way he did last year, Clinton’s motion will rightfully be killed.