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International Trade

US Trade Policy

A majority of Americans believe 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.

A majority of Americans believe US policy should ultimately support the goal of increasing trade. In an April 2001 Rutgers University poll, 64% expressed support for President Bush "reducing trade barriers to facilitate the import and export of goods". A January 2001 poll for the Congressional Institute found that a 53% majority favored "eliminating some of the barriers that exist to international trade, for example by reducing tariffs, in order to promote increased international trade;" only one in three (33%) were opposed. [1]

Only a minority of Americans want to put brakes on the growth of trade. In a June 2005 PIPA poll, respondents were asked how they feel about "the process of increasing trade between countries through lowering trade barriers, such as taxes on imports." Only 32% said it was going too fast while 60% said it was going at the right pace (41%) or too slowly (19%). These results are consistent with October 1999, when PIPA found 62% saying trade expansion was going at about the right pace or too slowly, and 30% saying it was going too fast. When given the option of expressing slowing the growth of trade, only a minority preferred this policy. In January 2004 PIPA found that 54% wanted “the goal of the US” to be to either “actively promote” the growth of trade (23%) or “allow it to continue” (31%), while 43% wanted to “slow it down” (39%) or “stop or reverse it” (7%). This is slightly lower than in 1999, when a stronger majority of 58% wanted to see a policy of trade growth.[2]

A majority supports the US playing a leadership role in promoting trade. In May 1999, Epic-MRA asked what role the US should play at the now infamous WTO meeting in Seattle that November. Only 6% wanted the US to "oppose efforts to reduce trade barriers." A solid majority of 56% wanted to see the US "play a leadership role in the effort to reduce trade barriers," while 31% said the US should "take a wait and see position to see what other countries propose."[3]

Strikingly, when the growth of trade is framed in the context of the larger process of globalization, overwhelming majorities support the idea of increased trade and communication. In a Pew Research Center poll conducted in May 2003, respondents were asked, “How do you feel about the world becoming more connected through greater economic trade and faster communication?” Of those surveyed, 79% agreed that it was “very good” (30%) or “somewhat good” (49%) “for our country.” These results are similar to the September 2002 Pew poll, in which 88% thought it was good for our country, with 36% saying it was “very good” and 52% “somewhat good.” [3a]

In this broad context, overwhelming majorities also endorse the US taking the lead in bringing down trade barriers. In a July 1997 poll by Penn, Schoen & Berland, 79% of respondents agreed (32% strongly) with this argument:

We live in the age of the global economy in which trade and technology are bringing the world closer together. We must lead in the revolution to reduce international trade barriers so that America will have access to all of the developing markets because in the long run these nations will increase their buying power, and expanding exports to them will be the key to our growth.[4]

Polls also reveal majority public support for the US entering into free trade agreements. In three polls conducted by Epic-MRA for Women in International Trade between 1998 and 2000, three-fifths of respondents approved of "free trade agreements with other countries." In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll from December 1997, 55% considered "more free trade agreements" to be a "step in the right direction"; just 22 percent said they were a step in the wrong direction, and 12 percent said they didn't make any difference. In July 1994, Times Mirror found 62% support for "free trade agreements between the United States and other countries, such as NAFTA and GATT"; just 28% were opposed.[5]

When the lowering of trade barriers is framed as something reciprocal between the US and another country a strong majority supports it. As the box below shows, support for reciprocal trade has remained steady in recent years. In a January 2004 PIPA poll, 67% said that "in general, if another country is willing to lower its barriers to products from the US if we will lower our barriers to their products," the US should do so. Just 24% disagreed. In October 1999, 64% agreed and 29% disagreed. In PIPA's April 1998 poll, 64% also agreed that the US should lower barriers to European products "if the countries of the European Union say they will lower barriers to products from the US." Only 28% disagreed in that instance.[6]

So why is it important for Americans that removing trade barriers be reciprocal? Apparently a substantial portion of the population believes that it is important strategically to only remove US trade barriers reciprocally, so as to put pressure on other countries to remove their barriers. In the January 2004 PIPA poll, the 67% who endorsed reciprocal lowering of trade barriers were then asked to choose between two statements. A strong majority of this group (50% of the whole sample) agreed "the US should only lower its barriers if other countries do, because that is the only way to pressure them to open their markets." Only a small minority (16% of the full sample) thought "the US should lower its barriers even if other countries do not, because consumers can buy cheaper imports and foreign competition spurs American companies to be more efficient." When PIPA asked the same follow up in its 1999 poll, it obtained very similar results. [7]
Despite their support for reciprocity, in the case of Europe, Americans oppose raising barriers against European products, even though a very strong majority believes that the US is more open to EU imports than the EU is to US imports. In April 1998, the 74% who agreed that "European countries do not let in American goods as much as America lets in European goods" were asked to choose between two statements. A majority of this group--55%--chose the statement, "Putting up barriers against European products would ultimately not be best for the US." Just 38% of this group opted for the statement, "It would be in the best interest of the US to put up more barriers against European products." Thus, only 28% of the whole sample favored a protectionist response.[8]

Not Satisfied With Government’s Handling of Trade

It is clear, then, that Americans do not oppose a policy of trade expansion, but they are unhappy with the way US government policymakers have handled the growth of international trade. In June 2005, PIPA posed a question that offered three alternatives to capture the public’s position on the issue. A clear majority of 56% chose the position that “I support the growth of international trade in principle, but I am not satisfied with the way the US government is dealing with the effects of trade on American jobs, the poor in other countries and the environment.” Just 16% were satisfied with the growth of trade and the government’s performance, and 23% said they opposed the growth of trade. In January 2004, PIPA asked about respondents’ perception of “the effects of the growth of international trade have been as compared to how US government officials said they would be.” A plurality of 39% said those effects had been less positive and just 23% felt they had been more positive. Twenty-eight percent said they had been about the same as government officials said. [8a]

Unhappiness With Emphasis on Commercial Interests

Americans show substantial unhappiness with the priorities of US trade policymakers. Commercial interests are seen as getting disproportionate consideration while other sectors of American society are seen as getting short shrift.

In October 2005, 60% agreed that “Freer trade mostly benefits multinational companies, not ordinary people or small companies”—and in a question that asked only about small businesses, 52% thought they would suffer while 41% thought they would benefit. On the other hand, 83% thought multinationals would benefit (GMF). An October 2003 TIPP poll asked the question, “Which of the following groups do you think has the greatest influence on the president and Congress in setting trade policies of the United States? Would you say big business, or foreign governments, or labor unions, or average citizens?” A strong majority of 61% said “big business” while only 6% said “average citizens” and 8% “labor unions.” A surprising 9% said “foreign governments” and 7% volunteered another response.[8b]

Recent PIPA polls have provided further evidence that supports this view, even when each group is asked about separately. In January 2004, when respondents were asked to think about "US government officials who are making decisions about US international trade policy," 49% said they consider the concerns of multinational corporations "too much"--the only group for which this was true--while for "American business" responses were evenly distributed among too much, too little and about right. However, overwhelming majorities said US trade policymakers give "too little" consideration to "working Americans" (77%), "people like you" (76%) and the “growth of the overall American economy.” PIPA’s October 1999 poll found similar results.[9]

I would like to know your sense about the US government officials who are making decisions about US international trade policy. How much do you think that they consider the concerns of…[read below]. Would you say too much, too little, or about right?

FOR JAN. 2004
Multinational corporations
49 23 23
American business
23 26 48
Working Americans
4 17 77
People like you
3 18 76

As discussed in "World Trade Organization," a strong majority also believes that the World Trade Organization favors the interests of business over the common good.
This is clearly out of step with the public’s preferences. In the June 2004 CCFR poll, when respondents were asked to rank the goals of US foreign policy, they placed protecting jobs well above protecting business interests. Indeed, 78% said “protecting the jobs of American workers” is a very important foreign policy goal, while only 32% said the same for “protecting the interests of American business abroad.” Perhaps reflecting how out of kilter current policy is perceived to be, the percentage saying that protecting business interests abroad was very important was at its lowest level ever (dating back to 1974). The importance of protecting jobs has remained very stable over the last 30 years.[9a]

Want Other Priorities Included in Trade Process

Americans show a very high level of support for including other priorities in the process of developing trade agreements.

In the PIPA question mentioned above, a solid majority has repeatedly said that US policymakers place too little emphasis on the environment when making trade policy. In January 2004, 62% said that decision makers placed too little emphasis on the “impact on the environment”, as did 60% in 1999.[9b]

When asked what "should be a major priority of US trade agreements" in an April 2000 Harris/Business Week survey, the highest rated priority was "protecting the environment," with an overwhelming 80% rating it as a major priority. Seventy-four percent also felt that "preventing unfair competition by countries that violate workers' rights" should be a top priority. Importantly, prioritization of these goals was about the same as "preventing the loss of US jobs" (77% major priority), and well above traditional goals of "keeping prices low for US consumers" (58%) and "keeping foreign markets open to US exports" (56%). In March 2004, a Pew poll also found that “protecting the global environment” was considered a “top priority” for US trade policy. At 58%, it ranked only below “keeping the American economy growing” (80%), “protecting the jobs of American workers,” and “making sure that products are available in the U.S. (United States) at affordable prices” (62%). Given the use of “top priority” (which suggests exclusivity) in the Pew poll, as opposed to “major priority” in the Harris poll, it is not surprising that jobs and economic growth ranked highest. In the Pew poll, however, only 32% rated “Promoting and defending human and worker rights in other countries” as a top priority. The intermingling of human rights and worker rights probably dampens enthusiasm for this response as it makes the category much broader and more vague. [10]

To give these priorities some edge, very strong to overwhelming majorities support the idea that trade agreements should include various standards of behavior not directly associated with trade, narrowly defined. In November 1999, a Zogby poll asked, "When the US (United States) enters into free trade agreements with other countries, should there be no conditions placed on the other country or should the US insist the other country meet environmental, job security, and labor condition standards?" Eighty-three percent said the US should demand such conditions and just 13% said the US should not. A 1997 Peter Hart poll asked:

Some people say that when we negotiate trade agreements, it is important to include labor and environmental standards that all countries must agree to meet. If a country violates these standards, restrictions will be placed on their products. Do you think it is very important, fairly important, just somewhat important, or not important to include such standards?

An overwhelming 87% said that it was important with 72% saying that it is very important. In a 1996 Wirthlin Worldwide poll, 73% favored including workers' protection and considering environmental issues when negotiating trade agreements. Only 21% opposed the idea. [11]

As discussed in "Environmental Standards" and "International Labor Standards," support for standards is not only derived from a desire to protect American workers from unfair competition by countries with low standards, but also from a moral commitment to protecting the environment and ensuring that the products that Americans buy are not manufactured in exploitive sweatshop conditions. Numerous observers have questioned whether Americans' support for such standards is actually a disguise for protectionism. However, when given the option of restricting trade with developing nations with low standards (January 2000, Penn, Schoen and Berland), by a very large margin the majority opted instead to seek the expansion of trade concurrent with the raising of standards. Given two options, only 20% chose the one calling to "restrict trade between the US and developing countries that have relatively low labor and environmental standards." Instead, 73% chose the statement that said the US should "expand trade between the US and other nations, including developing countries, while drafting rules of trade that encourage all nations to improve their labor and environmental standards."[12]

Americans have also shown concern that in developing trade agreements attention should be given to the impact on other countries that may be vulnerable. An April 1993 Americans Talk Issues poll found that two-thirds wanted economists who develop trade agreements to get input from other scientific advisors, such as "anthropologists, social scientists, and ecologists who often see ways to protect a country's social institutions, culture, economy and environment." Just about one in four opposed this idea. [13]

Readiness to Slow Growth of Trade

Although Americans would like to see US policy pursue the expansion of trade as a general goal, this goal does not override other considerations. Expansion of trade is not widely viewed as a top priority issue on the US agenda. In a Pew Research Center poll conducted in January 2002, respondents were asked whether certain issues should be a priority for President Bush and Congress in 2002. Only 25% of respondents felt “dealing with global trade issues [should] be a top priority.” Fifty-five percent felt global trade issues were “Important but [a] lower priority” than other issues and 13% felt global trade issues were “not too important.” [13a]

When asked about issues specific to the free trade debate itself, other concerns linked to trade also took precedence over free trade. To protect Americans against unfair competition, to protect the environment, and to uphold labor standards in other countries, Americans show a readiness to impose conditions on trade that would clearly have the potential to slow the growth of trade. As discussed in 'Helping American Workers,' a majority is willing to maintain trade barriers as a way of protecting American workers, though that is not their most preferred way of helping workers cope with the growth of trade. A majority or strong plurality is also in favor of slowing the growth of trade with China as a way of putting pressure on China to improve its human rights record (see Human Rights and Relations with China ).

When an October 1999 PIPA poll summarized this overarching perspective in a single statement on an overwhelming majority agreed with it. Eighty-eight percent agreed with the statement:
Increasing international trade is an important goal for the United States, but it should be balanced with other goals, such as protecting workers, the environment, and human rights - even if this may mean slowing the growth of trade and the economy. [14]

It should, of course, be noted that the willingness to slow the growth of trade for these other values is not necessarily seen as a serious sacrifice. Recall that, on balance, Americans feel that the benefits of trade barely outweigh the costs. (See "On Balance, Feelings About Trade Lukewarm.")

Continue to Low Support for Trade Promotion Authority ("Fast Track")




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