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Needed: a Fast Track on Trade

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The time has come to restore momentum to the free trade process. Significant advances have been made in recent months in areas such as information technology and telecommunications, but to fully assert American leadership partisan divisions in Washington must first be overcome.

For most of the last two years, trade has taken a back seat. Part of the reason was pure exhaustion. Pushing through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) required huge efforts by the Clinton administration and congressional Republicans. Last year, with elections looming, few in either party wanted to take on new issues.

Now, in 1997, trade policy faces fresh challenges - such as how to to restore a bipartisan consensus. This won't be easy. Republicans, with the help of moderate Democrats, carried the day on NAFTA and GATT. Some in both parties fought those agreements and remain deeply opposed to the new global economy. One side stresses sovereignty and the other jobs. Both share a nostalgic desire to erect economic walls around America.

The first question to be resolved in building a new consensus involves the relationship of labor and the environment to trade. Despite the administration's urging to include these issues in all post-NAFTA agreements, most of the world rejects the notion that they are directly linked to trade.

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Both issues have a place in the global policy dialogue, but rigidly insisting on a forced marriage to trade will impede the process of global liberalization from which most countries - including the United States - benefit. Labor and the environment should be the subject of serious bilateral and multilateral discussions, in bodies such as the International Labor Organization, but not a litmus test of trade policy.

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