That’s precisely the problem world trade faces today. We’ve come to stand on the shoulders of a half-century’s worth of remarkable progress: Trade barriers are lower and global trade more brisk than ever before.
But we’ve also fallen into a fit of complacency–or inertia, as Hubbard called it. Progress in free trade doesn’t just happen by itself. That’s the fundamental lesson of the WTO meeting in Cancun two months ago, when talks fell apart because a group of developing countries (the so-called G21) came to the table with a series of demands and a refusal to offer any concessions.
Unless we keep pushing free trade forward, like Sisyphus going up the hill, progress will halt altogether. It may even slip into reverse–which is even worse than the inertia of doing nothing at all.
That’s why the Free Trade Area of the Americas meeting this week in Miami is so important. Although it’s not part of the WTO process, the Florida confab is the first major international trade gathering since Cancun. Brazil was one of the countries chiefly responsible for the breakdown of talks in Mexico–and it’s a major player in FTAA. If we’re going to have any kind of a deal at all, Brazil must become a willing participant. Its commitment to free trade is being put to the test right now.
The Miami meeting, of course, won’t produce a big trade pact–the negotiations will continue for a few more years before they’re done. But that doesn’t mean we can’t measure progress. Think of it this way – We won’t score a touchdown on this play, but we can move the ball forward a few yards and perhaps even gain a first down. Or we can get stopped at the line of scrimmage for no gain. Worse still, we might fumble the ball, turning it over to the anti-trade coalition of radical activists and special interests that prefer the phony comforts of protectionism to the broad-based benefits of robust growth.
We know for a fact that many of the countries south of our border want to cooperate on trade deals. A decade ago, after all, Mexico joined NAFTA–a huge success for most involved, despite a few recent bumps in the road on high fructose corn syrup and the like. We’re also currently in the process of wrapping up NAFTA’s partner in rhyme, CAFTA–the Central American Free Trade Agreement–with Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua. These five developing countries recognize the importance of generating free trade with the United States.
The rest of the Americas will cooperate as well, so long as countries like Brazil approach the FTAA negotiations with a level of seriousness that we quite frankly didn’t see on display in Cancun. I recognize that trade representatives often must attend to political realities back home and that sometimes they perform more for their own media outlets than for the good of the global economy. It would be silly ever to expect something else in initial talks. But, it’s time to move beyond the politics and sounds bites and do what’s right. I’m hoping that the failure to achieve anything of substance at Cancun will leave Brazil and its neighbors hungry for at least some limited success in Miami.
In Cancun, the developing countries may have thought they drew a hard line in the sand. But anybody who has ever walked on a beach knows that the tides eventually wash away everything. Let’s hope that they will have washed away the bitter feelings and dashed expectations of two months ago in order to advance FTAA.
The United States is ready to progress. Soon we’ll know if Latin America is as well.