One of the most embarrassing, counter-productive moments in soccer is when a player trying to defend against a score accidently kicks the ball into his own goal. Sadly, well-meaning politicians, in a misguided attempt to restore America’s image and clout abroad, may be committing the political equivalent of an Own Goal.


One of the reasons the United States has been so admired around the world and its leadership so welcome was its commitment to a system of open trade and investment. This was a global virtuous circle. The most dramatic cases were the Marshall Plan that helped rehabilitate Europe after WWII and the whole Bretton Woods system of global trade and finance. Helping rebuild European industry helped create new markets for American goods and services, but our open markets also helped Europe’s recovery. Similarly, in Japan and East Asia, the U.S. market and U.S. investment, technology and management skills were key elements in the export-led growth that paved the way for the Asian Miracle. And for Latin America the promise of Free Trade in the Americas that began under President Reagan and continued during the Clinton and Bush administrations bought much good will throughout the region.

Fast forward. Now the same politicians who sincerely and rightly claim a major foreign policy objective is restoring America’s tarnished image around the world are proposing that we take precisely the opposite path. We have seen calls for undoing NAFTA and resistance to the US-Colombia FTA, and still more consequentially, opposition to the US-Korean FTA. To be sure, NAFTA has not been an unadulterated benefit: there have been winners and losers. In the case of Colombia and Korea – two important US allies — the facts suggest both would, on balance, be clear winners for America. That said, the explosion of bilateral and regional FTA’s around the world need to be carefully evaluated as there is considerable evidence that they can be trade distorting. But in the absence of progress on the Doha global trade round, such FTA’s continue to proliferate.

Worse than the particulars is the underlying logic of blaming trade for all our economic woes, when other factors such as technology may loom larger. For example, American steel production has continue to grow despite losing tens of thousands of workers, largely the result of increased productivity enabled by improved technologies.
At the same time, free trade advocates are often guilty of hyping the benefits but neglecting the fact that there are also losers.   Rather than doing away with the former, the answer is to make adjustment policies – extended unemployment, portable healthcare and pensions, reasonable vouchers for retraining and education – to ameliorate the latter. Few would argue we couldn’t do a better job on that.
An own goal is a really crummy way to lose.

Robert Manning is a Senior Advisor to the Atlantic Council.  The views expressed here are solely his own, not those of any U.S. government agency.

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