Trading Views

The Center for American Progress recognizes that views on trade are diverse and contentious, both within the progressive community and beyond. With a view to promoting a healthy debate, “Trading Views” will serve as a biweekly forum for these opinions. Not all of the columns will take similar positions – in fact, many will be contradictory. Our hope is that by publishing a variety of progressive opinions we can move the trade debate beyond its current polarized dynamic and foster a real discussion on solutions and actions.

Trading Views
What passes for debate on international trade these days is more akin to a shouting match between extremists – you're either totally for it, or totally against it; it's either a panacea that will deliver all the world from poverty, or a scourge unleashed on the world by a money-hungry elite.

Trade is one of those issues that exercises people – and with good reason. As the new global economy takes shape, the terms of trade will increasingly dictate the economic choices, opportunities and constraints faced by workers in this country and citizens throughout the world, including the 3 billion people who live on less than $2 a day.

Americans – and people the world over – stand to gain more by moving beyond a rancorous shouting match and towards a common vision of a global system that is designed to spread the benefits of trade as widely as possible.

Into these muddy waters steps the grandly-titled World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization, which recently released a major report that sets the stage for a real and reasoned trade debate and the emergence of a progressive trade agenda that combines the benefits of open markets and the need for economic justice.

The commission proposes a series of national and international measures that governments should implement to achieve fair and inclusive globalization. This includes fairer rules for international trade, investment and migration; steps to promote and implement core labor standards; recommendations for better international coordination; and emphasizes the need for better national governance.

To advance a consensus agenda, however, will require fundamental shifts in how we look at trade.

First, we must adapt the global trading system to better reflect global aspirations and long-term prosperity.

Free trade economists argue that unfettered markets produce the greatest levels of overall prosperity. But the rules of the game favor the rich countries, and the rich people within those countries. The benefits of free markets flow first to those with access to financing, land and human capital. Those with fewer assets encounter enormous obstacles as they strive to engage in the global economy. And asymmetric power creates double standards: the United States and EU demand that developing nations liberalize their agriculture sectors we are adding to our own protections.

A genuinely free and fair trading system is one that gives developing countries a seat at the negotiating table – not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because talking among ourselves will never lead to expanding markets and new consumers for our goods.

Second, a commitment to good governance – protecting human rights, upholding the rule of law, and upgrading labor and environmental standards – must be enshrined in a free and fair trade agenda. These are thorny issues but the commission report and other studies make clear that we can maintain nations' sovereignty while using new incentives to achieve progress that reflects the capabilities and economic realities of individual nations.

Third, there is a pressing need for policy coherence between and among the international institutions charged with leading global development efforts – the IMF, World Bank, World Trade Organization, International Labor Organization and United Nations. This is a massive task, and one that has produced many, lengthy and unread reports but far less political will. And yet, as the growing acceptance of the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals and cooperative efforts on the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria have demonstrated, it is by no means impossible to bring together public agencies and private NGOs around strong, clear ideas.

With trade assuming increasing prominence in international and domestic debates, the United States should, and could, take the lead in developing a real "free and fair" trade agenda.

The Bush administration, however, has missed several important opportunities to define and advance that agenda. In the wake of collapsed trade talks in Cancun, it has failed to exert the necessary leadership to reinvigorate the Doha round of world trade talks. It has consistently sought to water down trade agreements, and, when faced with increasing resistance at the regional and global levels, opted instead to pursue separate agreements with smaller individual countries. At home, it has cut programs for training and aid for dislocated workers that are essential to develop a highly productive and adaptable labor supply.

The Democrats, for their part, have railed against the winds of change blowing from the globalized economy, but have failed to offer a clear path forward.

At a time when America needs a vision built on the principle of sharing the benefits of the global economy – at home and abroad – we must recast the trade debate from one of right or wrong, black or white, and all or nothing. It's time for a new agenda. Domestically, we need to invest in new technologies and education that create jobs, to take advantage of our dynamic economy rather than ensuring more tax cuts for the wealthiest. Internationally, the commission's report provides a starting point in the search for common ground that can help make globalization a force for the good.

John Podesta is the president of the Center for American Progress and a visiting professor of law at Georgetown University.