Maryland, the free trade state


The Maryland delegation in the next Congress should defy protectionist pressures by getting behind the North American Free Trade Agreement linking the United States, Canada and Mexico in a powerful economic alliance quite capable of competing successfully with Europe and Japan. In recent years, prodded by organized labor, too many of this state's Democrats have abandoned the internationalist traditions of their party and the import-export interests of their maritime state.

Now that Gov. Bill Clinton has come out in support of the treaty as written, it should be easier for Maryland Democrats to take a free-trade position regardless of the election outcome next month.

For campaign purposes, Mr. Clinton larded his endorsement with reservations to mollify the AFL-CIO and protectionists in Congress. But if he is elected president, one of his first foreign-policy challenges will be to obtain passage of treaty-implementation measures on Capitol Hill.

Even if President Bush wins a second term, Maryland Democrats would help the state's economy by voting for the three-power trade treaty. According to the U.S. Council of the Mexico-U.S. Business Committee, the pact would create 500 new jobs and increase Maryland exports to Mexico by $21.2 million over the next decade. It also would open Mexico's booming financial sector to Maryland banking, insurance and other services.

Because the Baltimore region has long been a center for heavy industry as well as for international trade, it has been acutely affected by the changing nature of the world economy. At one time, the interests of these two economic powerhouses coincided. But as steel, chemical, auto and other heavy industries first lost markets abroad and then domestic markets to foreign competitors, the region's elected officials tried to save heavy-industry jobs by putting up trade barriers. Democrats, especially, joined labor (and heavy-industry management) in drifting away from an internationalist outlook to espouse protectionism.

Because the nation's economic future hinges on high-tech, information-based enterprises of the post-industrial age, Mr. Clinton's free-trade stance may be a sign that his party is returning to its traditional intellectual moorings.

This is a transition period, and transitions are not easy -- especially for citizens whose lifetime jobs suddenly disappear. Responsible officials have to work out policies for a world in which three great regional trading blocs -- in Europe, Asia and the Western Hemisphere -- have to compete without precipitating trade wars that would create global havoc.

The North American Free Trade Agreement negotiated by the Bush administration is the most promising initiative yet to emerge from seemingly endless negotiations. We support it wholeheartedly. Maryland's interests, far transcending the partisan politics of the moment, call for progressive, liberal trade policies.

The Free State should definitely be a free trade state.

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