He was talking about national unity. A week ago, we were red Republicans and blue Democrats. Today we’re red, white, and blue Americans. President-elect Obama is right about that.
We need to send another message to the world as well–one that says the United States won’t embrace the specter of protectionism, even in a time of economic anxiety. Cracking down on freer trade and trade agreements will only make our problems worse.
Throughout the presidential campaign, Obama said that our country must improve its image abroad. Rightly or wrongly, too many foreigners see the United States as a menace rather than a force for good. During his speech in Berlin this summer, Obama recognized this challenge: “In Europe, the view that America is part of what has gone wrong in our world, rather than a force to help make it right, has become all too common.”
The anti-Americans will probably always be with us, from the snobbish salons of Paris to the terror-loving madrassas of Pakistan. But surely we can do better in the eyes of the world. One of the fundamental promises of Obama’s candidacy is that under his leadership, we will.
As he said at the Democratic convention in August, “just as we keep our promise to the next generation here at home, so must we keep America’s promise abroad.”
Protectionism is a sure-fire way to blow it.
It doesn’t keep a promise abroad. Instead, protectionism breaks a promise–a promise of American leadership on global economic issues.
Since the end of the Second World War, the United States has fought for trade liberalization around the planet, to the benefit of ordinary people everywhere. Times may be tough right now, but on any objective scale that takes in the full sweep of history, we’ve never been more prosperous.
Just a generation ago, there were no high-speed web connections, cell phones, or iPods. There were no GPS devices in minivans or combines. There was no agricultural biotechnology, keeping down our costs and boosting our yields so that farmers can continue to feed a hungry world.
The ability to buy and sell goods and services across borders has underwritten much of this progress. Economic isolationism would threaten these gains–especially the ones that we still hope to achieve for the next generation.
Earlier this year, during the Democratic primaries, Obama suggested that the United States “renegotiate” or even “opt-out” of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Talk about breaking a promise!
The good news is that a little while later, Obama seemed to retreat from these rash comments. The guy with the famously cool temperament more or less admitted that his rhetoric had turned a little hot during the pressures of a high-stakes campaign.
“I believe in free trade,” he said in June. “As somebody who lived overseas, who has family overseas, I’ve seen what’s happened in terms of rising living standards around the globe. And that’s a good thing for America, it’s good for our national security.”
Now this was a change I could believe in!
Our economy is in rough shape at the moment, and not everybody believes in free trade. Some public officials in Washington won’t resist the deadly allure of protectionism. Special interests will plead with them to close borders and raise tariffs. It won’t matter to them that this will hurt people whose jobs are tied to the export market. It won’t matter to them that it will inflate consumer prices for everyone. It won’t matter to them that the world will wonder why America is turning inward.
The very opposite of a special interest, after all, is the common good.
So as much as I’d like to urge Obama to push through the Bush administration’s sensible free-trade agreements with Colombia and South Korea, and to ask Congress to renew Trade Promotion Authority, my first request of our next president is a simple one.
When it comes to trade policy, for the sake of our economy here at home and America’s image abroad: Start by doing no harm.
Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org