The right time to go it alone

ANDRÉS MARTINEZ

Los Angeles Times

September 15, 2005

President Bush knows of one thing he can do to alleviate global poverty, improve the U.S. image overseas, help fight the root causes of terrorism and — wait, there's more — save U.S. consumers a bundle. Do it already, you say. He will, Bush says, but only "as other nations do the same."

Why wait? At issue is the elimination of tariffs and farm subsidies that distort international trade, and it was in addressing the United Nations on Wednesday that Bush again pledged to do what "is key to overcoming poverty in the world's poorest nations" — but, alas, only if other rich countries do the same. He'd made an equally empty but bold-sounding offer at the Group of 8 rich countries' meeting in July.

It's absurd. Bush didn't wait for France to sign off on the invasion of Iraq; he certainly shouldn't wait for France to sign off on a dismantling of U.S. farm subsidies that give domestic cotton, rice, sugar and other crops an unfair leg up in global competition. Waiting around for Europe and Japan to accept trade liberalization in agricultural goods could be a decades-long exercise. Besides, it is an abdication of American leadership.

Expanding trade around the world, Bush rightly said Wednesday, "would strike a blow against the terrorists who feed on anger and resentment." By uncharacteristically refusing to act unilaterally on this one, the Bush administration is not only undermining the global economy, it's refusing to shore up U.S. national security.

This is an urgent matter. The so-called Doha round of World Trade Organization talks, aimed at addressing the devastating effect on poor nations of rich nations exempting agriculture from free trade, were launched in late 2001, in the somber aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks. But now they are at an impasse, two years behind schedule, with an important WTO summit approaching in December in Hong Kong.

Even worse, Bush may lose his fast-track authority (which allows him to put trade deals to a straight up-or-down congressional vote) in 2007, and Congress will put together a new farm bill next year to determine agricultural support for the next five years. The last farm bill, passed in 2002, had a certain going-out-of-business frenetic quality — with abundant subsidies — because everyone in Washington assumed it was only a matter of time before global trade rules would bar such deals. The U.S. has since lost a legal challenge to its cotton programs, brought by Brazil before the WTO.

The danger now is that a new farm bill could lock in place destructive subsidies through 2012, and beware of dodgy protectionists invoking Katrina (and the plight of some farmers along the Gulf Coast) as a reason to oppose a more level global playing field in agriculture. As it is, Washington was willing to do distressingly little to pry open the market for imported sugar in the recently passed Central American Free Trade Agreement.

It's true that in the ongoing talks to liberalize agricultural trade, the Bush administration has been a more constructive participant than Europe and Japan. But it's no longer sufficient for the U.S. to try coaxing other rich nations to come along. The U.S. should shame them by doing what is right first and dismantling trade-distorting subsidy programs. This would score Bush needed points around the world, and it is hardly an act of charity.

Unlike their European counterparts, plenty of American farmers (think grains) thrive when asked to compete fairly for global market share. Phasing out tariffs and subsidies would also benefit the overall U.S. economy (which has little business producing cotton or sugar in the first place) in the form of lower food costs and smaller budget deficits.

Then there's that moral imperative. Again, as Bush said Wednesday: "The elimination of trade barriers could lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty over the next 15 years. The stakes are high." So, Mr. President, let's not wait for the French to agree before doing what's right.