A Man of Many Trade Missions

Trade honcho Bob Zoellick has a strong diplomatic agenda

It's snowing gently outside as trade ministers from Colombia and the U.S. face off over a long conference table in Washington. The angular, intense American begins by offering condolences for a terrorist attack in Bogotá on Feb. 7 that killed 36. The talk turns from terrorism to the history, politics, and economics of the Andes, Central America, and all of Latin America, eventually returning to the minutiae of Colombian trade: coffee, oil, tuna.

Impressed, Colombian Trade Minister Jorge Humberto Botero proclaims with a broad smile: "You are the Michael Jordan of free trade!" "But he's retiring," protests Robert B. Zoellick, the U.S. Trade Representative.

Certainly, Zoellick, 49, is anything but retiring. He has sought to redefine trade as a crucial tool of American diplomacy and to establish his own role as the nation's globalization czar. His goal isn't just trade pacts, Zoellick says. It's also fighting terrorism "by spreading the message of prosperity and democracy" throughout the world. "Some businesspeople believe that we're just trade lawyers: You bring in your complaints, and we fix them," says Zoellick. "I want to come out with a much broader strategy."

The idea of trade-as-diplomacy brings to mind Zoellick's most ambitious effort: the 144-nation World Trade Organization talks that began in Doha, Qatar, in December, 2001. With the September 11 terrorist attacks in mind, negotiators from rich nations agreed to focus much of their effort on extending the benefits of free trade to developing nations by lowering barriers to their products -- food, clothing, and textiles. Also on the front burner: a Western hemisphere zero-tariff deal designed to steer the 34 nations to greater democracy and free markets.

Zoellick has also dispatched teams of U.S. negotiators to Morocco, South Africa, Australia, and most of Central America to cut deals. At the USTR office, the frenzied assault on protectionism is called "the competitive liberalization strategy," after Zoellick's theory that countries eager for greater access to the U.S. market will vie for Washington's attention and favor.

Whether the trade-as-diplomacy message will work isn't yet clear. After all, in the final stages of inking a free-trade deal with the U.S., Security Council rotating member Chile didn't mind defying the Bush Administration on its latest U.N. resolution on Iraq. The last effort by the Clinton Administration at a global agreement broke down in an atmosphere of acrimony -- and a cloud of tear gas -- in Seattle in 1999.

Zoellick will also face some difficulty with congressional Democrats who don't buy his notions or appreciate his sometimes thinly veiled disdain for those who oppose or disagree with him. The ranking Democrat on the House Ways & Means Committee, New Yorker Charles B. Rangel, exploded in anger and demanded an apology after Zoellick tried to pressure Congress into granting Trade Promotion Authority by linking trade to the fight against terrorism. Environmental and labor organizations have also cried foul as Zoellick tossed them off long-held seats on trade-policy advisory panels in order to add others more likely to rubber-stamp Bush Administration policies. Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce grumbles that Zoellick's negotiating agenda needs to focus on fewer, and larger, trading partners. "We need to give more weight to economic factors rather than foreign policy factors," says Chamber Senior Vice-President Willard Workman.

Other Zoellick critics in both parties find him too willing to compromise to get a deal struck. Doctrinaire free-traders were appalled when Zoellick supported pleas from the American steel industry to grant it three years of tariff protection from imports, in part to secure enough votes for passage last August of a Trade Promotion Authority bill. And Zoellick angered members of both parties when he ignored congressional instructions in December, 2001, and agreed at the WTO meeting in Doha to negotiate reform of America's arcane antidumping laws. He also agreed to relax patent protection for pharmaceuticals to fight AIDS in Africa, upsetting America's politically powerful drug industry.

While Zoellick has occasionally angered domestic political allies, he has nevertheless won high praise from his foreign contemporaries. By helping launch a new round of global trade talks, "Zoellick in Doha was quite courageous," says Sergio Marchi, Canada's ambassador to the WTO.

Even some in the U.S. find Zoellick's rough candor refreshing. Says Stuart E. Eizenstat, a top Clinton Administration official at the State, Treasury, and Commerce Depts.: "Sure, he's direct and blunt, but he gets things done. Bob is about the best practitioner of public policy that I have come across in my years of public service." While Friends of the Earth President Brent Blackwelder finds few areas of agreement with Zoellick -- and was dumped from one advisory panel by him -- he says: "If you raised questions with some previous trade representatives, they'd disagree in a roundabout way, whereas Zoellick will just tell you to buzz off."

It doesn't hurt that Zoellick has strong ties to the Bush family. Zoellick worked in George H.W. Bush's White House as a deputy chief of staff and under James A. Baker III at Treasury and State, where he helped negotiate the reunification of Germany. In 2000, Zoellick helped prepare then-Governor Bush for his debates, served as one of the eight "Vulcans," a group of top policy planners, and spent 35 days in the post-election battleground of Florida. Zoellick even made it onto Bush's e-mail buddy list.

Beyond Zoellick's gold-plated résumé and longstanding ties to Bush, his views are formed by his study of military history. Zoellick's father, an Army veteran of World War II and Korea, surrounded his son with uniforms and insignia. Zoellick's offices are filled with pictures of Civil War generals and naval battles. On trips to Africa, he can recount famous battles from the Boer war and the Zulu uprisings.

Skeptics of Zoellick's plans note that rising unemployment and a record trade deficit may dampen free-trade ardor in Congress, even among Republicans. Moreover, Zoellick's exhausting schedule and habit of berating aides have already accelerated a growing exodus of his top staff, forcing a cutback in trade talks. But Zoellick, by getting trade authority from Congress, kicking off the global Doha Round, and nearly completing deals with Chile and Singapore, has already accomplished more than most trade reps before him.

By Paul Magnusson in Washington

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