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International Trade

International Trade in General
Americans' views of international trade are complex and cannot be explained as a simple preference for free trade or protectionism. A strong majority of Americans views trade, in principle, as something positive and as having significant benefits for the US economy. However, the majority also has major reservations about how trade has been put into practice: Americans show strong concern that, though trade has benefited business and the wealthy, it has not benefited American workers and has widened the gap between rich and poor. Americans also show concern that trade has been harmful to the environment, to international labor standards, and to poor countries; and are unhappy because they believe that, while US trade practices are fair, most other countries' are not. Thus, on balance, the net feeling about trade is lukewarm at best. However, if Americans' reservations are addressed, an overwhelming majority says it would then support free trade--suggesting that what resistance there is to the growth of trade is derived from pragmatic, not ideological concerns.

US Trade Policy
A majority of Americans believes that US policy should ultimately support the goal of increasing trade. At the same time Americans are unhappy about how much emphasis US trade policymakers place on commercial interests and overwhelmingly favor incorporating other priorities-protecting American workers, protecting the environment, preserving international labor standards-into the process of furthering trade. If necessary they are willing to slow the growth of trade if that is the only way to address these other priorities. Support for fast track (now called "trade promotion authority") is low, apparently because it signifies the increase of trade without addressing these other concerns.

Helping American Workers
Given their concerns for American workers, a majority of Americans supports having some trade barriers as a means of protecting workers from sudden job losses, even when this is weighed against the potential benefit of lower prices. At the same time, Americans show ambivalence about trade barriers and a strong majority favors the long-term goal of gradually removing them. Also, more popular than trade barriers are government programs that help American workers, through retraining and education, adapt to a globalizing economy. When it is assumed that such government programs will be in place, support for removing trade barriers becomes overwhelming.

International Labor Standards
Americans show a strong concern for maintaining international labor standards. An overwhelming majority favors the US requiring compliance with international labor standards as part of international trade agreements. This is prompted by a sense of moral obligation to foreign workers as well as concern that low labor standards in other countries create unfair competition for US labor. An overwhelming majority also feels that the United States should not allow products to be imported when they have been made under conditions in violation of international labor standards. A strong majority indicates a readiness to pay higher prices for products to ensure that they are not manufactured in substandard conditions.

Trade and the Environment
A strong majority accepts the view that trade has implications for the environment and supports the idea that environmental standards should be incorporated into trade agreements. A very strong majority rejects the WTO's current position that countries should not be able to restrict imports based on the environmental effects of their production.

Trading With Poor Countries
Most Americans perceive that poor countries do not get a net benefit from international trade, and support giving poor countries preferential trade treatment. A strong majority supports lowering trade barriers with poor countries on a reciprocal basis.

The World Trade Organization (WTO)
A solid majority feels that the US should participate in the WTO and that the WTO should even be strengthened. At the same time, a majority has followed the controversy surrounding the WTO and a strong majority agrees that the WTO is too responsive to business interests over the interests of the world as a whole. An overwhelming majority rejects its resistance to including other considerations, such as labor and environmental standards, in the trade negotiation process and its principle that, in general, countries cannot refuse to import products based on the environmental effects of how they are produced.

For the last few years, a plurality has said that on balance NAFTA is good for the US. However, a strong plurality wants to see changes to NAFTA, and a majority expresses dissatisfaction. These reservations appear to arise from concerns that, while business is benefiting, NAFTA can have negative impacts on American workers' jobs and wages and on the environment. Nonetheless, based on minimal polling, it appears that there is majority support for expanding free trade to include other American countries, and thus there would likely be support for a broader Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).





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Recent Data Updates
International Trade - August 2008 (PDF)