Commentary Type

The Challenges and Opportunities of International Trade: Past, Present, and Future

Sander M. Levin (United States House of Representatives)

Prepared remarks delivered at a Peterson Institute event


We have a lot to talk about today.

The administration is engaged in negotiations that go far beyond our nation’s vast expanses, Atlantic and Pacific, as well as our northern and southern borders. This demonstrates vividly that globalization is here to stay.

Today, Japan joins negotiations to establish a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement that would cover 40 percent of world GDP and about one-third of total world trade. Earlier this month, the United States and the European Union began negotiating a transatlantic agreement that would cover nearly half of world GDP and about 30 percent of global trade. In Geneva, the United States is playing a leadership role in negotiations to establish a Trade in Services Agreement with over 20 nations, with more likely to join in the future, and it is negotiating a customs facilitation agreement and an information technology agreement.

This surge of trade negotiations is sparking intensified calls for granting Trade Promotion Authority (TPA).

On a substantial number of the issues in these negotiations there is likely to be relatively easy, broad-based bipartisan agreement. There continues to be a strong internationalist current with roots going back many decades among Democrats, and a pro-trade orientation embraced by Republicans despite some occasional strong “nationalist” echoes.

As economic globalization mushroomed, there were several sources of growing differences. Sometimes they involved a clash of different interests. But increasingly they reflected a broader dynamic. The approach to international economic issues increasingly reflected approaches to domestic economic issues. While there was a common belief in the vital role of the operation of free market forces, there were differences of magnitude as to how much markets should be left alone, or regulated.

For those who believe “less is better” domestically we have seen a strong tendency to describe expanded international trade as invariably “win-win.” Supporters of this approach were less prone to support strong enforcement and anti-dumping rules, believing instead that distortions in markets were best left alone to work themselves out.

On the other hand, for those more inclined to consider steps to shape market operations domestically, they were more inclined to address steps against market distortions in the international sector, including in considering trade agreements. Supporters of this approach have taken the lead in trying to shift the equation that has dominated discussions of trade as “free trade versus protectionism” to one of “free trade versus free and fair trade.”

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