AS/COA Online | James Bacchus Urges Obama to Work with Trade Partners in the Americas

“[Obama] needs to explain to the American people that trade is an indispensable part of any economic recovery we hope to have.”
In an exclusive interview with AS/COA Online’s Carin Zissis, former U.S. Representative James Bacchus (D-FL) discusses AS/COA’s new Trade Advisory Group report and the need for the Obama administration “to come forward with some evidence that the United States is willing to work on a hemispheric basis.” Bacchus, who is a leader of Greenberg Traurig’s worldwide practice, served on the Appellate Body of the World Trade Organization. He urges approval of pending trade agreements with Panama and Colombia.

AS/COA Online: AS/COA’s new Trade Advisory Group (TAG) report offers a series of recommendations about how to promote trade and integration in the Western Hemisphere, ranging from approval of trade pacts to energy and security partnerships. Which goals laid out in the report would you say are the most pressing ones to pursue?

: The most pressing goal for the Americas is to come together and work together economically and otherwise. We need more regional approaches to many more of our regional concerns. Trade is certainly a part of that but trade is only a part of that. Overall, we need a comprehensive approach to economic and societal development that must include trade. This is true of the United States of America and all that we need to be doing domestically. But here in the United States we can’t hope to achieve all we need to achieve domestically unless we also work with our neighbors throughout the hemisphere.

AS/COA Online: The TAG report emphasizes that [President-elect Barack] Obama will meet with hemispheric leaders at the April Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago. What do you think should be his main focus at that time?

Bacchus: His main focus and main goal at the Summit of the Americas should be to reassure other countries in the Americas that we here in the United States see ourselves as part of the Americas. There’s been too much of a tendency and a temptation in American politics to talk as if we can insulate ourselves from the rest of the hemisphere and from the rest of the world. This is certainly ironic in that recent economic events should have taught us, if nothing else, that we are inevitably interconnected with the rest of the hemisphere and with the rest of the world. But it’s not clear to our trading partners, to our neighbors, and to our friends and allies that we understand this.

Obama needs to communicate that, and he needs to come forward with some evidence that the United States is willing to work on a hemispheric basis. One good sign would be if he could report at that Summit that the U.S. Congress has approved the bilateral trade agreement with Panama. Another would be if he could also report that the Congress of the United States has approved the bilateral trade agreement with Colombia. These are initiatives that should have been taken in the past administration and certainly need to be taken up now.

AS/COA Online: In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed you wrote, you talked about some of these issues, including the importance of the North American Free Trade Agreement [NAFTA] as well as the Panama and Colombia trade deals. You also discussed the rise of a protectionist sentiment. Can the Obama administration overcome this sentiment to push these trade deals forward?

Bacchus: President Obama must do on trade what he does so well in so many areas. He needs to talk clearly to the American people, he needs to explain to the American people that trade is an indispensable part of any economic recovery we hope to have. He needs to challenge the members of Congress to follow him and work with him so trade can succeed as a part of an overall economic strategy for the United States. We simply cannot pretend that we can be competitive in this new world economy if we refuse to compete with our trading partners.

AS/COA Online: On that same note, one of the topics discussed in the report is the opportunity for transpacific trade. I was wondering, what do you see as some opportunities or hurdles to expanding transpacific trade in particular

Bacchus: One of the hurdles to expanding transpacific trade is the psychological hurdle of understanding that the United States of America is a Pacific nation. Most of the countries in Latin America are also Pacific nations. As we point out in the report, the new attention to a transpacific initiative gives us a chance to open a new front for expanding trade. This is a good opportunity for the United States and for the rest of the hemisphere.

More broadly, certainly there is increasing attention on Asian competition in the U.S. Congress and in the United States as a whole, and we need to understand that one of the ways we must confront this new challenge of competition economically from Asia is by building and intensifying our regional economic integration in the Americas. We need to increase our economic cooperation with our NAFTA trading partners, Canada and Mexico; we need to do the same with our [Central American Free Trade Agreement] trading partners. Beyond that, we need to move forward with all of the Latin American countries to find ways so we can be more productive by working together more effectively and more efficiently in the hemisphere. This will enable us to be more competitive in the overall global economy.

AS/COA Online: The Doha Round stalled this year. Do you see a possibility of Doha moving forward in 2009 and how?

Bacchus: There is a possibility of the Doha Development Round moving forward only if President Obama makes it a real priority. If the United States simply gives lip service to concluding the Doha Round, it won’t be concluded successfully. If the United States proves that it is truly serious about concluding the Doha Round, it can be concluded and successfully.

And it should be concluded because it will be a real shot in the arm for the global economy at a time when we desperately need some more economic activity. Offers are already on the table in the Doha Round would, over 10 years, create $120 billion annually in additional market access for developed and developing countries alike. This is not nearly as much as ought to be concluded in the Doha Round but it is certainly enough to make concluding the Doha Round a very good idea. Only if we can conclude it successfully will we then we have the credibility and the momentum to move forward with further global trade negotiations to address the new twenty-first century agenda for trade. The Doha Development Round is certainly important but the agenda of the Doha Round is largely a leftover agenda from the past decade and the past century. It relates primarily to tariffs and market access. The new trade agenda that must be addressed is far more comprehensive and relates to many more issues, including labor, environment, finance, intellectual property, and much more. But if we fail with Doha, then we won’t have the opportunity we need to move the WTO forward to achieve much more.

AS/COA Online: It is interesting the stuff you bring legislation that includes labor issues, environmental issues. In particular the U.S.-Peru agreement covered some of these issues. Drawing on your experience in terms of international trade, can you talk about how trade pact legislation has evolved over time to include labor and environmental issues?

Bacchus: I think the bargain that was struck last year between the Bush administration and the Democrats on the Hill on labor and environmental issues as a part of trade agreements was a good bargain, and it is certainly a sound basis for moving forward. I am among those who believe that it is possible to address certain labor and environmental issues in trade agreements without undermining trade and without creating pretexts for protectionism. I also believe that we need international rules and standards for workers’ rights and for environmental protection every bit as much as we need international rules that foster trade. I am very much in broad agreement with the new administration in the need to move forward on those issues. The question is: Can this be done within the current political and economic context in which we find ourselves?