In a recent editorial published by NMPolitics.net, a former Bush Administration appointee trumpeted the necessity of passing a number of free trade agreements when instead he should have been focusing on promoting fair trade – a totally different concept.
In my 25 years of working in overseas markets as a commercial diplomat for the Commerce Department, I dealt with hundreds of American businessmen and women in 24 different countries from Russia to Southeast Asia. During that time, I rarely heard, “If only a free trade agreement is signed, I’ll be able to sell my products here.”
The fact of the matter is that U.S. companies have had a presence in most of the world’s major markets for generations, and when left largely alone will continue to do well. Granted, there are markets where a lack of transparency and byzantine local regulations create an unlevel playing field (and we need to do more to correct them), but those can be hammered out without complex “feel good” FTAs. Businesspeople are resourceful and will use other means to succeed.
The other argument, “We must have lower tariffs and duties,” is a specious one; in most countries, the tariffs and duties on our products are miniscule (single digits) and are not impediments to our exports.
The debate on exports should be about readying our companies for the markets, not creating elaborate trading regimes that demand battalions of policy-makers to write them and monitor them. Anyone whose lived and worked overseas with American companies like I have knows that the real impediment to fair trade is the shape-shifter of free trade.
Indeed, the subject of exporting deserves a lot more ink than it’s currently getting, and having these discussions serves a very worthwhile purpose because it helps us see how the ideas of the policymakers stack up against those of the profit-makers. For me, the bottom line is that we need a moratorium on FTAs until we decide what kind of trading world we really want to create for the United States (something the current administration seems far from doing).
While we’re waiting – and working – for that to happen, we could start by eliminating some of the dozen or so U.S. government agencies that are stepping all over each other to “help” us poor businesspeople succeed overseas. In the meantime, if we need a poster child to illustrate how an agreement shouldn’t work, there is no better example than NAFTA… and we don’t have to travel far to see that in inaction.
Stephan Helgesen is a former U.S. diplomat. He is currently honorary consul for Germany in New Mexico and CEO of 2nd Opinion, an export consultancy firm. He can be reached at email@example.com.