WASHINGTON -- There was a time when international trade was the subject of poetry. In "Locksley Hall," Alfred Tennyson "Saw the heavens filled with commerce, argosies of magic sails / Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales."
Recently, however, trade has inspired more resentment than verse. During a recession, the threat of foreign competition can seem more real and present than the opportunities of foreign markets. According to the World Trade Organization, 30 countries have imposed trade-restricting measures since the onset of the economic crisis. China included a "Buy Chinese" provision in its own stimulus package. The U.S. Congress has variously threatened to impose tariffs as an instrument of climate policy, limited bailed-out banks in hiring foreign workers and encouraged states receiving stimulus funds to "Buy American."
All this is politically understandable -- and economically insane. With the world experiencing the largest drop in trade volumes since World War II, actions that restrict global trade will delay global recovery. Protectionism is economically self-destructive: Won't American companies eventually want to compete for contracts in India and China? Protectionism is diplomatically self-defeating: Do we really want to pick trade fights with our closest friends, such as Canada and Mexico? Protectionism is outdated: The distinction between foreign and domestic companies is blurred when many use transnational supply chains. And protectionism is unjust: The world's poorest countries are often the most dependent on exports.
Fortunately, after a fling with union-pleasing protectionism during his campaign, President Barack Obama has largely adopted the pro-trade consensus of his predecessors. He has signaled support for bilateral trade agreements with South Korea and Panama, and openness to a pact with Colombia. At the recent G-8 meeting in Italy, he joined other leaders in calling for the conclusion of a global trade deal in 2010 to comprehensively reduce tariffs and quotas.
Unfortunately, grand goals are the cynical staple of summits. Completing the global trade negotiations begun in Doha in 2001 will require developing countries such as China and India to open their manufacturing and service sectors, and the United States and Europe to dramatically reduce agricultural subsidies and barriers. And it will require Obama not merely to acknowledge the need for trade, but to press the arguments for trade on Capitol Hill and within his party.