Published on: 09:14AM Jan 09, 2009
The popular TV series Star Trek began each episode with a famous line about the starship Enterprise, spoken by the actor William Shatner: “Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
President-elect Barack Obama is about to embark upon a mission of at least four years, and success will require him to boldly go where he hasn’t gone before--on the issue of freer trade.
He won’t have William Shatner by his side, but it looks like he’ll have the company of his very own Captain Kirk--i.e., Ron Kirk, his nominee for U.S. Trade Representative.
The selection of Kirk looks sound, at least on paper. He’s a skillful politician with a record of supporting trade accords, such as NAFTA. A former mayor of Dallas--and therefore the citizen of a border state--Kirk knows first-hand the importance of exchanging goods and services across international lines.
He also represents a huge improvement over both Obama’s campaign-trail rhetoric and his apparent first choice for USTR. Xavier Becerra, a California congressman, has a decidedly spotty record on free trade. He flatly opposes several pending trade agreements and has changed his mind about NAFTA--he went from voting for it in Congress to thinking that it was a mistake.
Fortunately, Becerra declined Obama’s invitation to join the new administration.
I’m a little bit mystified as to how Obama can move so quickly from Becerra to Kirk, but for now I’m content to say that the president-elect has delivered a change I can believe in. America’s top trade diplomat shouldn’t be a protectionist.
One factor in Obama’s thinking may be that when it comes to trade accords, the White House calls the shots, not the USTR. Kirk seemed to suggest as much in an interview last month. “My agenda is the president’s agenda,” he told the Dallas Morning News. No surprise there.
Yet Kirk went on to hint that Obama will be open to lowering trade barriers: “The exciting thing for me is that the president very much sees a robust trade policy as part of his economic agenda. He understands that the United States can’t be protectionist, can’t step back from our trade relations.”
That’s for sure. In fact, if Obama wants Washington to put together an effective economic stimulus package, he would be wise to make sure that it includes congressional approval of the Colombia Free Trade Agreement--a modest pact that would provide a big boost to many Americans whose jobs involve exports, including farmers.
The World Bank expects global trade to shrink by 2 percent in 2009. This painful retraction will follow years of very good growth. It is part and parcel of a world-wide economic crisis, and the new administration must take steps to counter it.
The deal with Colombia would be a small step in the right direction. So would approval of pending agreements with Panama and South Korea. Moving forward, Kirk will want to seek out new opportunities for U.S. exports.
Last week, in a newspaper op-ed, a former State Department official suggested a U.S.-Japan Free Trade Agreement. As with any such agreement, the devil is in the details. But a return to economic prosperity will require creative thinking along these lines. American farmers would benefit enormously from better access to Japan’s food market.
Kirk will have his work cut out for him, though. One protectionist group claims that the anti-trade lobby has picked up 28 votes in the House of Representative and six votes in the Senate. Others have disputed these numbers, but whatever the reality, they reflect a distressing trend.
The trend is represented even within Obama’s cabinet. On the day the president-elect announced his selection of Kirk, he also introduced California congresswoman Hilda Solis as his choice for Secretary of Labor. As a favorite of union bosses, she is a fierce critic of trade.
This May, Hollywood plans to launch its summer blockbuster season with yet another rendition of Star Trek. Let’s hope that when someone gets around to filming a picture about the incoming administration, protectionists like Solis enjoy no time on screen--and that Obama’s Captain Kirk gets to play a starring role.
Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade and Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org