There is reason for grave concern about the direction of U.S.trade policy. The bipartisan, pro‐trade consensus that served U.S.economic and diplomatic interests so well for so long collapsedduring the final two years of the Bush administration. Tradeskeptics have increased their ranks in the new Congress, a majorityof Americans perceive trade as threatening, and grim economic newshas made the political climate inhospitable to arguments in supportof trade.
But restoring the pro‐trade consensus must be a priority of theObama administration. If the United States indulges misplacedfears, restrains economic freedoms, and attempts to retreat fromthe global economy, the country will suffer slower economic growthand have greater difficulty facing future economic and foreignpolicy challenges.
America’s trade skepticism is largely the product of a top‐downprocess. Perceptions have been shaped overwhelmingly by relentlesspolitical rhetoric that relies on three myths. Congress and themedia have spoken for years about the decline of U.S. manufacturingas though it were fact, when the overwhelming evidence points to asector that, until the onset of the current recession, was robustand setting performance records. Both lament the U.S. trade deficitwithout attempting to convey or even understand its causes,meaning, or implications. And both attribute these alleged failuresof policy to lax enforcement of existing trade agreements.
President Obama should reexamine these premises. He will findthat they are long on fallacy and short on fact. Meanwhile, thepresident will find it necessary to rein in the congressionalleadership’s increasingly provocative approach to trade policy ifhe is to have success repairing America’s foreign policycredibility.
The determination of the president to arrest and reverseAmerica’s misguided and metastasizing aversion to trade coulddramatically improve prospects for restoring the pro‐tradeconsensus.