The U.S. is failing to lead on trade and missing opportunities, a former top official said in Minneapolis on Monday, joining a growing chorus of experts worried about the direction of trade policy.
Carla Hills, who was U.S. trade representative under President George H.W. Bush and is now co-chairwoman of the Council on Foreign Relations, said there was plenty of blame to go around for the stalled trade agenda. President Obama has been slow to act, Congress hasn't given him the authority previous presidents had to negotiate trade deals and the American people cannot be troubled to understand the basic questions of international trade that their elected leaders face, Hills said.
Hills said removing trade barriers enriches America, reduces poverty in developing nations and helps create strong American partners for the future.
Congressional leaders are preparing bills to give so-called trade promotion authority to Obama, which would allow him to negotiate trade deals and submit them to Congress for an up-or-down vote. Congress to date hasn't allowed the Obama administration to do that. President George W. Bush last had that authority for a period of several years that ended in the spring of 2007. He negotiated 14 free-trade deals, including one with South Korea that was the biggest since a three-way deal with Canada, Mexico and the U.S. in 1993.
"Our negotiators cannot achieve the best trade deal possible if our trading partners expect that there will be a second negotiation with Congress," Hills said.
The U.S. has handled China's growing role in international economics particularly badly, Hills said.
Congressional unwillingness to ratify a 2010 deal that would have given China more say in the IMF and World Bank hastened Chinese efforts to create their own development and infrastructure banks that will offer an alternative to the traditional western-dominated global economic system.
The U.S. has not signed on to China's Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, but many American allies have become members, including the U.K., Germany, South Korea and, last week, Israel.
"We get huffy about it, which is diplomatically absurd," Hills said. "I'm not critical of China, I'm critical of us."