Pro­tect­ing free trade

Arab News - - OPINION - Carl Bildt The writer is Swe­den’s for­mer prime min­is­ter. Project Syndicate

RE­CENT po­lit­i­cal dis­course on both sides of the At­lantic has raised a dis­turb­ing ques­tion that is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to dis­miss: Are the US and Europe turn­ing away from the poli­cies of open­ness that have his­tor­i­cally driven their eco­nomic success?

In the US, Don­ald Trump, the pre­sump­tive Repub­li­can nom­i­nee for pres­i­dent, is wag­ing ver­bal war against vir­tu­ally every trade agree­ment his coun­try has ever struck. He has threat­ened to tear up the highly suc­cess­ful North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment and pledged to block any at­tempt to move for­ward with the re­cently con­cluded Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship (TPP).

Should Trump’s views be­come part of the Repub­li­can Party’s platform, the shift will re­draw the po­lit­i­cal land­scape re­gard­ing free trade. Mean­while, Trump’s likely op­po­nent in the gen­eral elec­tion, Hil­lary Clin­ton, seems to have folded the flag and adopted at least part of the anti-trade tirades of Trump and her left-wing pri­mary op­po­nent, Bernie San­ders. Sud­denly, she has turned against the TPP agree­ment, de­spite having sup­ported it pre­vi­ously. She is op­pos­ing US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s ten­ta­tive plan to have it rat­i­fied by Congress im­me­di­ately af­ter the Novem­ber elec­tion.

This be­hav­ior is with­out prece­dent. Never before have the lead­ing con­tenders for the US presidency fu­eled fears that free trade will un­der­mine Amer­ica’s pros­per­ity. Which­ever can­di­date pre­vails in Novem­ber, the con­se­quences are likely to be se­ri­ous.

In Europe, the sit­u­a­tion is only marginally bet­ter. Aus­tria’s en­tire po­lit­i­cal spec­trum has come out firmly against the pro­posed Transat­lantic Trade and In­vest­ment Part­ner­ship (TTIP) be­tween the US and the EU. And pub­lic opin­ion seems to be un­der­go­ing a sim­i­lar shift in Ger­many, a coun­try that owes its af­flu­ence to its success in global mar­kets. Even in the Netherlands, which used to have free trade in its DNA (and would hardly ex­ist with­out it), vo­cal cam­paign­ers are threat­en­ing to hold a ref­er­en­dum to re­ject any trans-At­lantic trade deal.

Given the history of the West, these are per­plex­ing de­vel­op­ments. Europe’s rise be­gan when its ships started to ex­plore the world for new mar­kets and op­por­tu­ni­ties. This un­der­pinned not only rising wealth, but also in­no­va­tion. To open up mar­kets, af­ter all, is also to open up minds.

Sim­i­larly, in the decades since the end of WWII, the se­cu­rity of the West has been built first and fore­most on the eco­nomic success of the US, Western Europe, and Ja­pan — success that was driven by in­te­gra­tion, trade, and in­no­va­tion. Ac­cord­ing to nearly every in­di­ca­tor one can think of, the re­mark­able growth in trade dur­ing the past quar­ter-cen­tury has given mankind some of its best decades ever.

That is why it’s im­pos­si­ble to imag­ine achiev­ing ambitious global de­vel­op­ment goals with­out plac­ing free trade and glob­al­iza­tion at the cen­ter of the strat­egy. If the West, los­ing faith in it­self, turns away from the very prac­tices that made it suc­cess­ful, where does that leave poor and de­vel­op­ing coun­tries?

For­tu­nately, all is not yet lost. But res­cu­ing the West’s trade agenda will re­quire ex­cep­tional lead­er­ship and per­se­ver­ance. This will be a de­ci­sive year. The trade agree­ments in­volv­ing the US, Asia, and Europe are im­por­tant not just in terms of tra­di­tional goods, but also in terms of the free flow of data. While trade in phys­i­cal goods is show­ing signs of stag­na­tion, data flows have in­creased by a fac­tor of 45 dur­ing the last decade. If Obama can en­sure the ratification of the TPP and bring the TTIP ne­go­ti­a­tions to a con­clu­sion, he will have laid the ground­work for fu­ture progress. If he falls short on ei­ther task — or, cat­a­stroph­i­cally, fails on both — the world will face a far more un­cer­tain fu­ture.

Po­lit­i­cal lead­ers who still be­lieve in the West must ded­i­cate them­selves to the de­fense of free trade and the con­struc­tion of an ever more open world. They must do ev­ery­thing they can to pre­vent the in­tro­duc­tion of pro­tec­tion­ist mea­sures and the erec­tion of bar­ri­ers to glob­al­iza­tion.

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