For those of us who are keeping track, the story on trade is a disheartening one. Every day brings with it news of yet one more bilateral agreement signed between countries who seem to have given up on a comprehensive, multilateral trade agreement: New Zealand and Hong Kong announce a trade deal, South Korea and India, Guatemala and Colombia, and of course China with everyone else. What does the U.S. have to say about this shift away from multilateral negotiations under the World Trade Organization? Not a whole lot. In fact, nothing at all. Since Obama took office, trade experts have been waiting for that one major trade speech from the President that would signal U.S. policy in this area. We're still waiting. "Well, the President has had a bit on his plate!" you might argue. Fair enough; after all, we are recovering from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and fighting never-ending wars on two fronts. Perhaps President Obama simply hasn't had time to consider charting a course on world trade? But worse than no trade policy, we have had a policy that undermines the system the United States itself sought to bring into existence. The United States' focus has been on "Buy American" programs that foster a false sense that a patriot must revert to a parochial way of thinking that bankrupts both our neighbors and ourselves (of course our trading partners have taken their cue from us and constructed their own "Buy Local" provisions).
But just after World War II, with Europe and Japan reeling from the economic (and human) devastation of war and with the rise of the USSR, the United States saw that it was in its own interest--and the interest of the world--to construct a system of multilateral trade to help countries out of the economically depressive bog they found themselves in. Trade was helpful not just for economic prosperity, however, but also to foster a sense of a common humanity and a common struggle for peace. It was a novel, pathbreaking idea at the time, and we need more of that kind of thinking now. A multilateral agreement on trade is helpful not just as a way out of economic depression, but also as a way out of our limited thinking. We need bigger ideas. We need a U.S. policy on trade.