Now where to go on trade policy

by Morton Sosland
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Morton Sosland

In the aftermath of what has aptly been described as the “dystopian cacophony” of the recent national election, the nation is now beginning to face the consequences of numerous policy changes regarding issues before the new occupant of the White House as well as the Congress. One policy shift of huge importance to grain-based foods deals with the sudden positioning of the United States as no longer a positive advocate of trade agreements. That is strikingly different from the long-standing role that had such agreements as a centerpiece of U.S. foreign and domestic policy. Cessation of such support follows many years in which both political parties prided themselves as proponents of these agreements, which were aimed at bolstering trade for American exporters as well as for giving foreign nations access to the American market.

None of the understandings, agreements or negotiations served only the economic sectors that benefit specifically from trade advantages. In almost every case, the point could be made that America’s leadership in launching trade negotiations and helping to assure their eventual completion was a positive for this nation’s standing in the world. As a result of many past negotiations, America, as a market for goods coming from other countries, both large and small, has achieved a powerful negotiating force with matters and issues beyond trade itself.

All too often coming under attack during this year’s political season was the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The attackers described this pact as having multiple negatives for the United States. For the grain industry and its many parts, these attacks appeared not just wrong but dismally missing the mark. Grain and associated trade under way between the three partners, Canada, Mexico and the United States, has helped make the North American grain economy not just stronger but has been a stimulus to similar arrangements in other parts of the world. Doing away with NAFTA, as was urged during the campaigning, would be a disaster for agriculture, as well as for all industry, that, if allowed to happen, would be a black mark on all involved.

While having NAFTA erased would be a catastrophe that must be combated, the failure on political grounds of agreements that have been under negotiation for years is equally worrying. Here attention must be given to the Trans Pacific Partnership whose initials became one of the chants among the noisiest critics of the American economic system. While it was a foregone conclusion the Trump administration would withdraw from T.P.P., suffice it to say that the partnership offered a real opportunity for American leadership among Pacific Basin nations, particularly to accomplish this with China looking on. Looking beyond the T.P.P., losing similar negotiation under way across the Atlantic Ocean has the same negative implications for trade between America and Europe. Neither pact promises to open trade in grain or grain products, which already is thriving with both Asia and Europe. Once again these negotiations reaffirm America’s role as a respected leader in facilitating such understandings.

How all of this negativism about trade agreements emerged is easy to understand. Both Donald J. Trump, the Republican candidate, and Senator Bernie Sanders, who contended for the Democratic position against Hillary Clinton, almost built campaigns on opposition to doing the T.P.P. As labor unions and a broad scope of people favored such actions by citing trade agreements as causing people to lose jobs, nearly all candidates for political office this year embraced the anti-agreement stand. Efforts to define Mrs. Clinton’s position as subject to change once in office were vehemently denied to the point that her moral character was being defined by whether or not she would stick to being anti-trade agreement. Cynicism on this score and at this early stage might seem overreaching. Yet, considering the wide reach of many benefits from such agreements, for the grain and grain-based foods industry and many others, it is difficult not to be dispirited by rapidly fading hope that a basis for positive change in trade policy will be found early in this new administration.

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