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The "something" that will probably be voted is fast-track authority. This will give the president the power to negotiate new trade agreements that Congress will ratify without those time-consuming special-interest amendments tacked on.
What's happening is that trade has once again become a bipartisan issue. The concept of fast-track authority has moved to the front burner because both Republicans and Democrats now recognize that a new round of global trade talks is about to begin-with or without America in the lead.
The cloud on the horizon is that a new global trade agreement will be expected to solve a lot of national problems when many of the solutions for one set of countries conflict with the solutions demanded by other groups. On one hand, there are the developing nations and even they're divided between the huge poor economies such as India and Pakistan, and the smaller, even poorer nations of Africa. Europe has its agenda: a mix of local market protectionism and demands that the U.S. and Japan sign the ill-constructed Kyoto Accord on the environment before the European Union nations sign up. Every other nation seems eager to sign narrow special trade pacts with other countries, but not to set up a new environment for all.
The best bet is that the first innings of this new round of trade talks will start next month (November) in Doha, in the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar. Efforts to build a consensus agenda have been under way at the World Trade Organization headquarters in Geneva since June. But the going has been slow.
Part of the problem is that no one knows what America wants. They think there are things America doesn't want-the Kyoto treaty being one; E.U. barriers on U.S. capital flows is another. The Bush White House is coming to the trade issue late, but at least the president's chief advisers on the issue are sounding the alarm that it is time to get going. Fast track is key.
In his first policy speech-presented in mid-July to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington-U.S. special trade representative Robert B. Zoellick said he needs full authority to negotiate for U.S. interests.
"This is not an abstract debate on trade policy. I'm at the table now, every day, negotiating with countries from around the world," Zoellick says. "They have full authority to negotiate for their nations' interests. I need it, too."
Ambassador Zoellick says he favors a "more focused agenda" that would limit the Doha talks to reducing barriers to access for services, agricultural products, and industrial goods. Yet he recently took note that E.U. trade negotiators were finding willing partners for special trade pacts on the added issues of banking, insurance, and telecommunications, so he won't rule those issues out.
"Today the E.U. has 27 free trade or special customs agreements around the world, 20 of which it negotiated during the 1990s; moreover, the E.U. is negotiating another 15 right now," he says. "Last year, the E.U. and Mexico-the second largest market for U.S. exports-negotiated a free trade agreement. Countries throughout East Asia are quickening the pace of special trade negotiations. Japan is negotiating a free trade agreement with Singapore, and is exploring free trade agreements with Canada, Mexico, Korea, and Chile. In our own hemisphere there are 30 free trade agreements and the United States is party to only one."
He adds that a trade stalemate is of particular concern for America's small businesses: "Ninety-seven percent of America's exporters have fewer than 500 employees and 65 percent have fewer than 20 employees. Ninety-six percent of the market for food is overseas and there's only so much more Americans can eat. Trade agreements help create fairer rules and provide mechanisms to enforce those rules."
Zoellick's forecast is an urgent one: "If we are unable to overcome the breakdown in Seattle by launching a new round of global trade negotiations, special trade agreements will proliferate even more quickly, most often without the United States," he says.
Noting that future trade alliances will determine America's place in the world in the way military alliances did during the Cold War, Zoellick says we have an unparalleled opportunity to shape the post-Cold War, globally integrated world to, "promote our values and our interests while safeguarding our sovereignty. But history is not shaped by the faint of heart."