The United States must seek a new deal on trade that includes more opportunities for U.S. exports and a level playing field, writes U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke. He reflects on the violent 1999 WTO Ministerial meeting in Seattle and the Obama administration's evolving trade policy.
FOR weeks before the 1999 World Trade Organization Ministerial meeting in Seattle, state and local authorities had known that peaceful protests were being planned around the Washington State Convention & Trade Center.
But as I drove through downtown on the night of Nov. 29 and saw waves of people returning from a rally waving placards, I got a sinking feeling that the anti-trade sentiment was stronger than people had anticipated.
Was it ever.
The violence, rioting and vandalism I saw on Nov. 30 was worse than anything I’d seen in the Pacific Northwest before or since.
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As Washington’s governor at the time, I spent most of that day shuttling between different police command centers trying to help tamp down the chaos, and fielding frantic phone calls from officials in Washington, D.C., who were concerned about whether we’d be able to restore calm before President Clinton arrived the next day.
That morning, I distinctly remember getting an agitated call from Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who was slated to give the WTO welcoming address but was stuck in her Seattle hotel room because protesters had formed a human wall around the convention center.
Fortunately, we found a route to get Secretary Albright through to give her speech — and by the next morning, the National Guard, working with local and state law enforcement, had settled things down.
Profound questions about trade
But the events of that day still resonate 10 years later — because the profound questions and concerns that many Americans still have about trade and globalization have not been fully answered.
We know, of course, that most of the people who turned the WTO meeting into the “Battle of Seattle” were anarchists and radicals who intended to destroy property and disturb public order from the beginning.
But we can’t overlook that there were also thousands of people from labor, faith organizations and other nongovernmental organizations who turned out that day. They were concerned about how a quickly globalizing world was affecting jobs, wages, the environment and human rights.
Those are concerns trade advocates have not done nearly enough to address over the past decade.
For years, folks in Washington state and throughout America have heard their leaders — present company included — talk about how trade and open markets can create jobs, drive innovation and expand prosperity throughout the world.
I know that rhetoric is cold comfort to the South Seattle factory worker who has seen his job go to Mexico or the high-tech worker who has been replaced by someone in India.
But the answer to our problems is not to abandon trade altogether.
History is littered with examples of countries that thought they could turn inward and close off markets to protect their economies. The United States tried this approach during the Great Depression to disastrous effect.
It didn’t work then. It won’t work now.
A new deal
What this country needs is a new deal on trade.
The United States is one of the most open economies in the world, and that’s not going to change. Our borders will remain open for the world’s products.
But under the Obama administration, that commitment will be met by a renewed focus on ensuring that U.S. companies are operating on a level playing field with their foreign competitors; and that our trade policies have high standards on labor, environmental and human rights that will protect workers here and abroad. President Obama understands that trade is not just a way to spread prosperity where hope is in short supply. It is also one of the keys to America’s economic recovery — especially when it comes to exports.
Exports are already a growing and substantial part of the U.S. economy.
They account for almost 13 percent of American GDP, which is three times as much as 50 years ago.
And exports account for more than 6 million American manufacturing jobs alone.
Here in Washington state, exports are 23 percent of the gross state product. Key state industries like aviation, technology and agriculture have helped make Washington the most trade-dependent state in the union.
But these numbers must grow even more.
We can no longer depend on American consumers to drive the economy by borrowing too much and spending beyond their means.
We must instead rely on the strengths that have always powered our economy: creating and selling American-made products and services that help folks around the world lead healthier, wealthier and more productive lives.
Today, less than 1 percent of America’s 30 million companies export — a percentage that is significantly lower than all other developed countries.
Our interconnected world
With our increasingly interconnected world — where 95 percent of consumers reside outside our borders — global markets can help revive the fortunes of U.S. companies and spur future economic growth.
Moreover, trade can help developing countries build better lives for their own people. Look no further than the millions of people in Asia, Africa and Latin America who have joined the middle class thanks to their countries trading with the world.
The Obama administration is working to build a new consensus on trade, one that can create widespread prosperity for everyone.
While in Asia recently, President Obama pledged that the U.S. would engage in the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement, which would draw us closer to Asia — a bloc of countries that buys 26 percent of U.S. exports — while setting a high bar for human rights, environmental protection and labor that could serve as a model for future trade agreements.
Promoting trade’s benefits
Meanwhile, the Commerce Department, which I have the honor to lead, is significantly expanding our export-promotion efforts around the world to ensure that U.S. businesses — especially the small and medium-size enterprises that account for more than half of all new jobs — have fair and frequent access to foreign markets.
I’m confident that the steps we’re taking will help make the benefits of trade more immediately apparent to all Americans — and that is vitally important.
I understand the frustration we saw in Seattle 10 years ago, and in these difficult economic times, we’re seeing similar emotions from people who feel like the American economy just doesn’t work for them and their families anymore.
That’s got to change. Under the leadership of this administration, it will.
Gary Locke is secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce. He was Washington’s governor from 1997-2005.