Time to play fair

By Michelle Chen Apr 01, 2009

Commerce Secretary Gary Locke uttered some bold words when he announced that the Obama administration would be focusing on promoting “fair trade.” In a Wall Street Journal interview, he argued for “minimum standards that other countries should abide by if we’re allowing their products to come in to the United States.” But defining fair trade is tricky business: the term smacks of narrow-minded protectionism to some, global justice to others. If we look at fair trade as a counterpoint to the so-called free-trade orientation under the Bush administration, workers inside and outside US borders could face better prospects for rolling back free-trade policies that have deepened instability in the Global South (and in turn driven migration to America). The Obama administration has emphasized commitment to open trade, but also nodded toward tighter regulation and “social accountability.” As the global recession plows deep into developing economies, the administration could inject some social responsibility into global policy by helping poor nations deal with the crisis the way America does: allowing governments to assert control over their economies in the public interest. Restructuring institutions like the International Monetary Fund would help relieve many developing countries from the massive debt that erodes economic self-sufficiency. Sarah Anderson at the Institute for Policy Studies explains how the international financial crisis, and potential solutions, tie back into the U.S. economy:

…the Obama administration has focused on dramatically increasing funding for the IMF, the very institution that helped lay the foundation for the crisis. Instead, the White House should push for the cancellation of impoverished countries’ existing debts. Much of this burden was the result of predatory lending. In the 1960s and 1970s, reckless bankers lent gobs of money to corrupt governments that then left the people holding the bag. Debt relief is a proven, effective, and fast way to reduce poverty. And if the IMF used its existing resources to pay for it, this approach would put a minimal burden on U.S. taxpayers.

At the G-20 summit, which will underscore growing resistance to neo-liberal free-marketeering, Obama will have a chance to envision a saner global economic order. In the context of social equity, the aim of fair trade isn’t protectionism, but respect for the right of all countries to balance domestic social needs with the forces of international commerce. As the meltdown spreads, Washington could finally be persuaded to cool down the economic engines that drove the crises at home and abroad. Image: Jubilee USA