The Nobel Committee in Norway says it awarded President Barack Obama the 2009 Peace Prize for “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” (Congratulations, Mr. President.) In particular, the committee noted Obama’s multilateral approach on the issues of climate chance and nuclear disarmament.
But where has the president been when it comes to using diplomacy and cooperation to promote global trade, which is essential to global peace and prosperity? Given the infamous role of protectionism in the Great Depression, it’s no surprise that open and expanded trade has been at the core of the post-World War Two economic order, particularly during the past two decades.
The Great Recession, though, has shattered that consensus. An analysis by economists Barry Eichengreen and Kevin O’Rourke has calculated that “world trade is falling much faster now than in 1929-30.” Paul Krugman says trade “has fallen through the floor in a way that it literally never has before, including in the Great Depression.” Global Trade Alert, a trade watchdog group with links to the World Bank, found at least 121 protectionist measures had been implemented by G-20 nations during the past year.
Just of late, the EU imposed anti-dumping duties on steel pipe from China, while Australia may impose ownership limits on foreign buyers of big companies. “So far, traditional trade protectionism has been a low-grade fever,” said World Bank President Robert Zoellick said in a recent speech. “But the temperature is rising.”
And actions by the Obama administration and Congress show that America is hardly immune. Indeed, they have been spreading the disease. Among the protectionist outbreaks: The “Buy American” provisions in the $787 billion stimulus package, the blocking of Mexican trucks from U.S highways, the G.M. and Ford bailouts, inaction on pending free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea, tariffs on Chinese tires.
An American administration that seems disinterested in free trade? “You can drop the word ‘seems,’” says Bruce Josten, head of governmental affairs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Looking for an explanation? Here’s one: Bad economics makes for convenient politics. Since the Obamacrats might not be able to deliver the top two items on Big Labor’s wish list — reopening the North American Free Trade Agreement and passing rules making it easier to organize workplaces — they’re giving union supporters just about everything else.
Obama’s political advisers may not understand the importance of free trade, but his economic ones do. Obama should listen to them and begin to lead. Give Congress the greenlight to pass the free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea. Commit to getting the Doha trade round concluded within a year. The centrist Democratic Leadership Council also suggests that Obama reconnect trade to national security by asking Congress for a broad long-term waiver of tariffs for low-income countries and large majority-Muslim-majority states. Instead of increasing boosting aid to Pakistan, for instance, why not eliminate $360 million a year in tariffs on its exports?.
If Obama did all that, not only would he actually be worthy of the Peace Prize, but probably the Nobel Prize for Economics as well.