Nafta: A Defining Moment For America

On Nov. 17, Congress will cast its first official vote on America's role in the post-cold-war era. The vote on the North American Free Trade Agreement is not simply about Mexico and jobs: It is a referendum on the nation's willingness to build a new institutional architecture for international relations. The real question before Congress is whether the U.S. has the guts and vision to replace the deadly geopolitical confrontation of the cold war with a new "geo-economic" competition based on open markets, free trade, and regional alliances.

Such defining moments are rare in history. Only twice before in the 20th century has Washington faced a decision of such magnitude. Once it punted, with disastrous results. In 1920, Congress rejected President Woodrow Wilson's request for membership in the League of Nations, effectively turning the nation isolationist and protectionist. The Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act followed, triggering the Great Depression and paving the way for World War II.

The horror of that war drove home to America the disastrous consequences of retreating from the world. Congress voted to finance the Marshall Plan for Europe, create NATO, and join the International Monetary Fund and the General Agreement on Tariffs & Trade. America took the leading role in constructing the international organizations that defined the next half-century, thereby preserving for itself relative peace and a great deal of prosperity.

The same choice between global leadership and pusillanimous retreat is before Congress once again. A bizarre alliance of groups is pounding away at the 30 or so Congress members wavering on NAFTA. They are led, of course, by the would-be William Jennings Bryan of modern day America--Ross Perot. The populist poseur, his image riding across America's TV screens, is trying to rally the fearful and the wounded to fight against the forces of global competition.