`We told you so," critics of the new World Trade Organization are crowing. Even the freest of free traders are wincing. Things have gone sour for the U.S. ever since it joined the WTO last year. Opponents had warned that the U.S. was surrendering its sovereignty to a bunch of Euro-trade hacks who would eagerly rule against the world superpower. The latest contretemps: The WTO ruled that the U.S. must either ease clean-air curbs on gasoline imported from Venezuela or face trade sanctions in perpetuity. Pull out now, say conservative, environmental, and consumer-rights groups.
It would be a monumental mistake to heed the call of the economic nationalists. The Clinton Administration was correct to battle for congressional approval of U.S. entry into the WTO, an organization set up to foster multilateral trade. America's economic interests are still best served by wide-open markets and the freest possible flow of commerce and ideas.
Problem is, after fighting so hard in Congress for the WTO, the Clintonites seem to have dropped the ball. They have stood by while the enemies of multilateral trade pushed all the hot buttons of resentment. Sure, the U.S. will lose some decisions over time. But it will also earn many more victories. Indeed, it is widely expected that the U.S. will win most of the dozen market-opening cases it has filed with the WTO.
The U.S. must make a big push to defend its vital interests at the WTO. It's time for the Administration to make a concerted effort to revive moribund WTO talks on dismantling barriers in financial services. It should also renew negotiations to open up the global telecommunications market. WTO multilateralism won't last long without active American participation. The U.S. has too much to lose to just walk away from negotiations.