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View from the NFTC Chair
View from the NFTC Chair
By Ambassador Alan Wm. Wolff
June 2017

We now have a few elections behind us, so some reflection is useful on how the cause of international trade was served.

The Washington Post had the following take on the French election: The choice voters faced was between those who favor open, globalized societies and others who prefer closed, nationalistic ones. This is the debate underway across the world. What we are seeing is historic: a choice of two completely different modes of organizing society. These words, adapted only slightly, taken from a recent story, describe the French election of May 7, 2017.

Emmanuel Macron was centrist in an era of extremes. He favored regional openness within Europe and defended the European Union’s trade agreement with Canada (CETA) as this was the agreement that was most current and was under attack. He was under no illusions with respect to competition from China and the difficulties of gaining access to that market. He stood his ground against protectionism despite pressures to resist change – such as a plant departing France to relocate Poland. There was risk enough in the French election but a landslide in his favor vindicated Macron.

At home, House Ways and Means Chair Kevin Brady provided the clearest articulation of the free trade point of view. On July 15 last year he said --

“Like the term ‘free speech,’ the term ‘free trade’ doesn’t refer to its cost, it means the freedom TO trade. In America it’s our freedom to buy, sell and compete anywhere in the world with as little government interference as possible. “It’s important to everyday Americans because this economic freedom lies at the heart of America’s marvelous free enterprise system that creates jobs and prosperity. . . . “Given all that’s at stake, we cannot afford to limit our freedom to trade. Nothing will weaken America faster or strengthen our competitors more than rolling back that freedom.”

During the U.S. Presidential candidates, the American voter was not treated to a full-throated debate on the merits of free trade versus turning inward. Each of the three finalists, Trump, Clinton and Sanders, were critical of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which was the only agreement on offer at the time. They found fault with NAFTA as well. Donald Trump was critical of all past trade agreements, calling them “terrible”. This approach clearly appealed to his base, and may have gotten him elected through the support that he gained in Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Senator Bernie Sanders was opposed to free trade agreements beginning with NAFTA in 1993 and extending to the free trade agreement with Korea and TPP. Hillary Clinton moved to become more critical of both NAFTA and TPP, saying that she could no longer support the latter. These positions were taken despite Pew and Gallup polls showing that the majority of Democrats favored free trade agreements, particularly the younger age group of eligible voters by a margin of 3:1.

In history, an election that stands out as a stark contest between free trade and protection was in the UK, and not so much in 2016, which was perhaps mostly about relations with Brussels and immigration, but in 1906. That election is remembered in large part due to the eloquence of Winston Churchill and the fact that he changed parties two years earlier, from Conservative to Liberal, in order to be true to his free trade convictions. He spoke from the same perspective that characterizes Kevin Brady’s remarks quoted above, namely that free trade was good for his country: … our Free Trade plan is quite simple. We say that every Englishman shall have the right to buy whatever he wants, wherever he chooses, at his own good pleasure, without restriction or discouragement from the State. That is our plan….

Churchill also understood that access to foreign markets depended on openness at home: If it be economically wise for England to shut out foreign imported manufactures, it must be economically wise for India to shut out British imported manufactures.

Early 20th century Britain had a full debate on the merits of free trade. In 2016, America did not. In our Presidential election, the American people were not well-served by the absence of the case being made for trade.

Ambassador Alan Wm. Wolff is a Senior Counsel of the International Trade Practice at Dentons US LLP and is the Chairman of the NFTC Board of Directors