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Free Trade is Diplomatic Engagement


Location: Washington, DC

Free trade is diplomatic engagement

By Congressman Joe Pitts

Many of the most adamant critics of the current administration have spent the last seven years criticizing the President for a foreign policy they see as unilateralist and lacking in the soft power of diplomacy. But many of these opponents are also anti-free trade, and free trade is one of the most powerful diplomatic tools at our disposal.

And the Democratic Presidential candidates have gone so far as to suggest we should unilaterally withdraw from trade agreements with our closest neighbors and allies. These are puzzling actions because free trade has the potential to benefit U.S. diplomatic, economic, and security interests at the same time.

In spite of this, opposition to free trade exists in Congress because of the belief that American workers need protection to compete with workers abroad. This kind of zero sum understanding of trade has kept free trade from advancing and has prevented many throughout the world from realizing the mutual benefits that can come from free, fair, and open trade. In fact, American producers can compete with anyone in the world; they just need to have access to markets abroad.

And yet, 132 members of the House voted against the Peru Free Trade Agreement in November—the last trade agreement to come before Congress.

The U.S. has free trade agreements with allies such as Israel, Canada, Mexico, and Australia to name a few. And we have passed and are working toward implementing agreements with Peru and Oman. These agreements have allowed U.S. firms and producers to send products into these markets duty-free. In fact, in some cases, goods from abroad were already being allowed into the United States with little or no tariffs due to negotiated trade preference arrangements.

These bilateral trade agreements are necessary because the very complex trade negotiations on the worldwide level have run into significant hurdles and have become bogged down by wrangling over subsidies and tariffs.

Since coming to office, President Bush and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative have worked vigorously to negotiate further bilateral trade agreements. President Bush has announced he will shortly submit the Colombian Free Trade Agreement to Congress for consideration. Many Democrats in Congress have continued to express their opposition to the measure and Democratic leaders in the House have expressed their unease with having to vote on a free trade agreement during an election year.

The Colombian Free Trade Agreement has important potential diplomatic, economic, and security benefits. It would be a shame if it were to fail due to union pressure and the anti-trade rhetoric of a campaign year.

Colombia has become an important ally in Latin America. Colombia's President, Álvaro Uribe Vélez, has worked to bring order back to Colombia by taking on the narco-terrorists and other paramilitary groups that have plagued the country with violence in the past. His government has also aided the United States in clamping down on the drug trae. The nation is bordered by Venezuela, home to a socialist revolutionary leader who is not keen about the democracy and rule of law taking shape in Colombia. Venezuela's President, Hugo Chavez, has gone so far as to drive tanks to the border with Colombia and threaten war.

Opening trade with Colombia would help strengthen the economy of an important, developing ally. Approval and implementation of the Colombian Free Trade Agreement will demonstrate strong U.S. support for a country and a people who share our values of economic freedom and democracy, in an area that has not fully dedicated to such values.

But the security and diplomatic incentives are not the only reason to support free trade. Currently, the vast majority of Colombian products pay no tariffs to enter U.S. markets. This agreement would turn one-way trade into truly bilateral free trade.

Colombia is our largest export market for U.S. agriculture products in South America. In fact, in 2007, total U.S. goods exports to Colombia reached $8.6 billion. Eighty percent of those goods would enter the Colombian market tariff-free immediately within enactment of the agreement.
The Colombia Free Trade Agreement, and agreements with other like minded democracies, should be approved by Congress because it is in the best interests of the United States. And those politicians who have criticized the Bush administration for not engaging in diplomatic efforts around the world would do well to realize that free trade is precisely the diplomatic effort they are looking for.

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