Hillary Clinton announced her opposition to a free-trade deal with South Korea this weekend, citing concerns over reciprocity and an imbalance in existing trade. Today, the Washington Post editorial board scolds her for short-sightedness, and wonders what kind of pandering to both labor and manufacturing we can expect from her as President:
THERE ARE pluses and minuses, it's often said, to having a former first lady running for president. On the debit side, for example, is the oligarchical aura of two families passing the presidency back and forth for 24 or possibly 28 consecutive years. On the positive side is the experience Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) gained during eight years in the White House, experience that ought to translate into a broader national perspective than a senator or governor can attain.
But has it? That's the question raised by Ms. Clinton's announcement over the weekend that she will oppose the free-trade agreement with South Korea -- and for the narrowest of special-interest reasons. It's hard to imagine an issue where the national and international benefits weigh so clearly and heavily on one side. Yet Ms. Clinton, sounding more auto salesman than statesman, has joined many of her Democratic colleagues in Congress in opting to jettison those benefits.
The United States and South Korea in April concluded 10 months of negotiations to sign what would be, if ratified, the most far-reaching trade agreement since the pact with Mexico and Canada that President Bill Clinton championed in 1993. It's a pact between the world's largest and 11th-largest economies that would benefit workers, farmers and companies on both sides. As a democracy with a strong trade union movement, South Korea doesn't pose the workers' rights challenges that vex unionists in agreements with poorer countries. This deal would open the Korean market to a wide array of U.S. agricultural, industrial and cultural products and services; in fact, the political risks in South Korea are far higher than here. And it would demonstrate U.S. commitment to a vital region at a time when China is steadily gaining ground.
Why does Clinton object to the deal? She objects to the fact that Koreans sell more cars in the US than the US does in Korea. Specifically, she says that the deal doesn't eliminate the "multitude of informal barriers" that keep American cars from selling widely in South Korea:
"Unless those barriers fall, American carmakers will face increased competition at home and won't get greater access to South Korea's market," she said. ...
"While I value the strong relationship the United States enjoys with South Korea, I believe that this agreement is inherently unfair," Clinton said at an event hosted by the AFL-CIO labor confederation in Detroit, home of the U.S. car industry.
What informal barriers? The trade agreement forces Seoul to remove discriminatory tariffs and taxes on cars. As the Post points out, it gives us the right to end the deal if they don't keep their word. Is she complaining because South Koreans have a cultural tendency to buy vehicles made in South Korea -- sort of like the American labor movement's old Al Gore lullaby, "Look for the Union Label"? (Yes, I know Gore was joking, and so am I.)
This is what we can expect from a Democratic administration: protectionism and trade battles. John Edwards has already announced his opposition, and Barack Obama says he will study the agreement for a while before announcing a decision. The economic expansion that globalization has brought to the US and the world will founder on the shoals of a Democratic executive, especially if supported by a Democratic Congress. No trade will be free or fair enough, and we will fall back on inflationary and destructive applications of tariffs to fight trade wars with nations who should be our partners.
Worse, this insistence on imposing American labor restrictions on other nations will keep them from competing and developing their own industrial base. Besides the cultural arrogance that demands an American-style relationship between labor and management, that policy would price developing nations out of the manufacturing market -- which is what the unions want. That would leave other nations in poverty, without much hope of capital infusions necessary to lift their standards of living.
We need to ensure fairness in trade, but we need to ensure that trade continues to exist in a free-market environment. We cannot demand that South Koreans buy American; we can only present our goods without interference and let the consumers decide. The South Korean government has agreed to change what's in their control, and it's a good deal for everyone. If Hillary can't see that, then perhaps she needs to stay in the Senate.