U.S. FTA a bold but vital stepThe long-stalled free trade deal between Korea and the United States came into the limelight on the event of President Lee Myung-bak’s visit to Washington. President Lee repeated calls for ratification of the 2007 agreement by the parliaments of both countries. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said President Barack Obama and the U.S. are determined to make progress on the FTA.
But many in the government and Congress are skeptical about whether the deal will come into force in the near future. Many doubt that the Obama administration has the will and resources to face another legislative war so soon after the debilitating process of passing the controversial health care reform. Moreover, support within the U.S. Democratic Party won’t be easy to win, with many obstructionist forces opposing an FTA on trade and job concerns. For President Obama, pushing for a trade pact with Korea against the party’s labor interests would be a gamble ahead of the midterm elections in November.
Still, the chorus for quick ratification from American business is getting louder. U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue has said the U.S. must double exports in the next five years to pull itself out of the recession and create new jobs. To do that, the free trade pacts with Korea, Colombia and Panama must be completed, Donohue said. Citigroup Senior Vice Chairman William Rhodes called a free trade framework with Korea the strongest stimulus to propel a recovery and job creation, urging the government and lawmakers to act quickly.
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk sided with the business leaders, saying the FTAs in Korea and Latin America will help add jobs.
In his State of the Union address, President Obama endorsed the goal of doubling American exports in the next five years and creating new jobs by aggressively seeking new markets. Yet he offered few details on how he would push the FTAs with the three countries forward.
President Lee shed new light on the need to enforce a bilateral FTA. In his interview with The Washington Post, he said the FTA will serve as more than just an economic stimulus by benefiting the Obama administration’s Asian policy. Stronger economic ties with Korea can serve as strategic leverage against China, which is gaining military and economic power rapidly. In the International Herald Tribune, Albert Hunt cited similar reasons in emphasizing the need for a U.S.-Korea free trade pact.
President Obama will now have to call the shots. He can either succumb to easy political temptation at the cost of the broader interests of his country or display bold leadership, as his Democratic predecessor Bill Clinton did in realizing the North American Free Trade Agreement.