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The ‘Soft Power’ of Trade

by Robert McMahon, Editor CFR.org
September 3, 2008

MINNEAPOLIS — Energy is shaping up as one of the main foreign policy wedge issues between the Republican and Democratic candidates. Trade could be another. Three top aides to Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the presumptive Republican nominee, emphasized the importance of a robust free trade policy in a panel discussion today at the Hubert Humphrey Institute here on foreign policy priorities for the next president.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), former U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman, and veteran diplomat Richard Williamson, the country’s special envoy on the Darfur question, all stressed the role of trade in projecting soft power and strengthening U.S. alliances.

Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) and many of his party’s lawmakers have been critical of the Bush administration’s free trade agenda for lacking protections for Americans in industries buffeted by trade. Obama opposes the pending deal with Colombia because of what he says is a lack of labor protections for Colombian workers, and criticizes the pending deal with South Korea because of what he says are imbalances that fail to provide reciprocal market access in South Korea.

Lieberman said shifts in the Democratic Party on trade issues contributed to his move away from the party and indicated trade could be one of the defining issues of the campaign.

Portman praised an open trade agenda as a tool for making countries better global stakeholders, adding “countries that trade together don’t fight.” He called trade “probably the single best weapon we have to reduce poverty” and said for the United States, healthy trade exports have prevented the country from slipping into a recession.

 Williamson faulted China and India for the recent failures of the Doha round global trade talks but said they remain crucial as emerging powers for triggering expanded international trade deals. “Trade is the canary in the mine shaft that should alert us of need to engage New Delhi and Beijing differently [to help advance U.S. interests globally],” said Williamson.  

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