by Grant Reid | Democrats send the wrong message abroad.
For the past several years, Democrats have universally complained that the Bush administration and the War in Iraq have harmed America's standing around the world, especially amongst its key allies. Polling data seems to support this conclusion; however, an April poll by the BBC showed that foreign perceptions of America are now improving across the world. Just as the US has begun to correct its image abroad, the Democratic candidates for president are jostling to see who can enrage our allies the fastest.
Perhaps the most overlooked spectacle of the endless Democratic presidential primary is the party's return to trade protectionism. President Clinton pushed NAFTA through as one of his first priorities as president in 1993 and most Democrats embraced the benefits of free trade for over a decade. But with the economy stagnating, Democrats are looking for a scapegoat, and who could be an easier target but those dreaded foreigners.
Fast-forward to this year's presidential race and the Democratic Party of the Clinton years has ceased to exist. Even Sen. Hillary Clinton has recanted her previous support for free trade and is now against the CAFTA agreement and the presidential fast-track trade authority. The CATO Institute gives her just a 17% positive rating on free trade issues. For his part, Sen. Barack Obama voted against trade deals and wishes to renegotiate NAFTA.
In their rush to scapegoat free trade as the reason for the demise of the American middle class and the death of labor unions and manufacturing jobs, both candidates undercut a central argument of their campaigns. The first and most obvious way to improve relations with our allies is to liberalize trade. The benefits of free trade are too extensive to enumerate here, but on a political level, the reason foreign nations are so eager to engage in free trade is because of the tremendous benefits they stand to reap.
Denying or renegotiating trade deals would damage the nascent rapproachement with our foreign allies solely for cheap political gain. A more protectionist stance on trade will not bring back a single American job moved abroad and will only result in higher prices at home. Moreover, for candidates so obsessed with repairing the damage done to America's reputation, their desire to take a standoff-ish approach to trade sends a mixed message to allies and calls into question their desire to reengage with the world.
Moreover, the recent election of conservative governments in key foreign nations sends a message to the future American president that the rest of the world is open to more traditionally conservative and free market ideas and not liberal protectionism. Conservative governments in France, Italy, and imminent demise of the Labour government in Britain signal that as our main allies move toward the right at the end of the Bush years, America would be mistaken to inaugurate a new era of destructive liberal policies that would place the nation at odds with those it is trying to please.
This is what makes Democratic protectionist threats so dangerous. Trade is one of the most powerful tools America has to influence nations and strengthen economic ties between itself and others. And while there are valid concerns concerning trade agreements, such as ensuring fair labor and environmental practices, killing free trade agreements sends a strong signal that America is only willing to be friendly on its own terms. There is none of the needed humility or sensitive handling of international concerns needed to repair relations with key allies, but instead a continuation of the same bull-headed policies that damaged America's reputation in the first place. Principled opposition to the Iraq war might be a way to win over some Colombians, but those gains are far outweighed by resistance to liberalize trade and improve the Colombian economy.
Unlike opposition to the war in Iraq, free trade can have positive benefits in the daily lives of working people around the world through cheaper goods and jobs created as a result of greater economic investment. Leveraging America's economic might would be a simple and powerfully effective tool in any effort to show the world a new side to America that listens to foreign concerns and values the wellbeing and prosperity of its allies.
In the rush to condemn the Bush administration and the war in Iraq, Democratic presidential candidates have lost sight of the potential free trade has in accomplishing one of their main campaign aims. The mission to restore America's standing abroad begins by freely extending an olive branch to our erstwhile allies and not by playing destructive political games with trade.
Mr. Reid is a junior majoring in History.