Bhagwati on American trade politics

In the FT, Jagdish Bhagwati writes:

Once the staunchest supporter of multilateral free trade, the US has turned into arguably its greatest foe. Both multilateralism and free trade are at risk…

Even the free-traders, among them many Republicans, have undermined multilateralism by embracing preferential trade agreements. These PTAs masquerade as free trade but are plainly not…

Amid anxiety over wages and jobs, wrongly blamed on trade and globalisation, it makes no political sense to take one piffling PTA after another to Congress, as the Bush administration has done. Each time a congressman votes for it, he expends scarce political goodwill. This applies particularly to Democrats whose constituents include a high proportion of workers. Asking Congress members to go repeatedly to a poisoned well has reduced their willingness to do so…

That assessment concurs with Evenett & Meier’s take on competitive liberalization’s domestic impact.

The result? Disaster, Bhagwati argues:

[T]he new Democrats insist on inclusion in trade treaties of labour and (domestic) environmental standards as elements of “fair trade” in a tougher way than ever before… It is comforting: you need not feel guilty if you can deceive yourself into thinking you are flogging the foreigner in his own interest.

It is a gift to protectionism that the Democrats can hardly wait to give to their lobbyists such as the AFL-CIO union federation.