After four years of delay, Congress has ratified free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea.
Each of the treaties facilitates efficient allocation of resources, including the profit drives of individuals. Specific dimensions make each distinctive, and promising in political as well as economic terms.
Congressional approval was timed to coincide with the visit of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. He faces no shortage of challenges and conflicts at home, not least the always dangerous and recently lethal long-term military standoff with North Korea. In stark strategic terms, this treaty will help him bolster influence at home as well as abroad.
The agreements generated bipartisan support in Congress. Normally warring Democrats and Republicans have found temporary consensus on international trade. That is no small accomplishment when U.S. unemployment remains at the high level of approximately 9 percent and the occupant of the White House has his principal political base in the left wing of the Democratic Party, where protectionist sentiment runs strong.
Colombia for years has been plagued by the FARC, an enormous drug-based criminal enterprise. For a time, expanding Pentagon involvement encouraged eerie parallels with American military entrapment in Vietnam in the early 1960s. However, the FARC is now contained. The trade accord can help that process.
Panama has a distinctive history as a country literally carved out by Theodore Roosevelt’s administration to construct the Panama Canal. In consequence, political passions both there and here traditionally run strong when addressing our sometimes-strained relations. Republican presidential contender Ronald Reagan successfully denounced President Jimmy Carter’s treaty ceding canal control to people there. The trade accord can mitigate tensions in the United States as well as Panama.
Concerning South Korea, the largest bilateral agreement in history ends tariffs on more than 90 percent of trade categories between our two nations. As with Colombia and Panama, historical context is important.
South Korea reflects other Asian economies in abandoning previous protectionism designed to shelter promising but weak domestic enterprises. Following the Korean War, the nation was among the poorest in the world, but today ranks among the richest and most productive economies. The Korea Institute for International Economic Policy has predicted that exports under the new agreement will expand initially by 12 percent annually, and grow more in future years.
American economic opportunities, in particular related to agriculture and automobiles, are featured in specific aspects of the agreement. Seoul would gradually end the beef tariff, currently set at 40 percent, and resume imports from the U.S., which were halted in 2003 during fears about foot-and-mouth disease. Korean limits based on vehicle engine size and capacity would be cut.
South Korea’s economic development and democratic political evolution are a direct testimony to the wisdom of American foreign policies over many years. Harry Truman demonstrated great courage in 1950 in immediately intervening in the Korean War. Dwight Eisenhower demonstrated great effectiveness in ending that war, then leading a thorough reconstruction of South Korea.
The three free trade agreements strengthen relations among the nations directly involved and provide promising precedent for others, including Islamic populations now experiencing political revolutions.
Scripps Howard News Service contributor Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis.