The Obama administration has quietly embraced the most ambitious agenda on trade and investment liberalization in the past two decades.
The United States is currently juggling no fewer than five high-level trade negotiations: free trade talks with the European Union; the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks with a dozen Asia-Pacific countries; a new Information Technology Agreement covering trade in high-tech goods; negotiations on liberalizing services trade though the World Trade Organization, and a last-ditch effort this week to agree on new trade facilitation measures at the WTO ministerial meeting in Bali.
This about-face on trade from President Barack Obama’s first term is remarkable.
In 2008, candidate Obama promised to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and Mexico to add tougher provisions for protecting worker rights and the environment. Once in the Oval Office, he stalled for several years before even sending to Congress three free trade agreements — with South Korea, Panama and Colombia — that had been completed by the Bush administration. Today, however, the administration’s trade agenda is the most far-reaching since the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the United States was negotiating NAFTA and the Uruguay Round of world trade talks.
The new direction is as much accidental as deliberate. Except for the new talks with Europe, the various trade initiatives have been slowly advancing for many years and are now coming to fruition. But it also reflects the administration’s belated recognition that opening new global markets is vital for generating stronger U.S. growth.