President Clinton's "fast track" authority to negotiate trade agreements Congress cannot pick apart but must vote up or down effectively expires today. Sooner or later he will have to go to the mat on this issue. Not only is the future of world trade reform at stake; so is the credibility of his domestic economic strategy. No mistake about it: the U.S. economy cannot prosper unless the global economy pulls out of its doldrums through healthy growth in international commerce.
That Mr. Clinton, world statesman, understands this well was underscored by his American University speech last Friday in which he said: "In the face of all the pressures to do the reverse, we must compete, not retreat. . . Open and competitive commerce will enrich us as a nation."
That Mr. Clinton, Democratic politician, well understands the protectionist pressures in his party was underscored by the tough rhetoric he directed at foreign nations: "We will continue to welcome foreign products but insist that our products. . . be able to enter [foreign] markets on equal terms."
Despite the contradictory elements in the president's speech, despite the aggressive tactics his administration has adopted toward Japan and Europe, despite the lack of a pledge to renew fast-track authority, the evidence suggests that Mr. Clinton remains committed to the liberal trade positions that have undergirded U.S. policy for decades. In recent appointments to two key sub-Cabinet posts, persons with a preference for free trade rather than protectionism were chosen. Their influence is likely to point the administration toward ratification of the pending North American Free Trade Agreement and, perhaps, revival of negotiations of a new global pact under the General Agreement of Tariffs and Trade (GATT).
Clinton economic policies have been received abroad as a clear sign the United States is about to take strong action to reduce its deficits and spur its economy, as its allies have long urged. The president's speech on international trade went part of the way to dispel their fears of U.S. protectionism.
Irritating obstacles still lie in the path of renewed good-faith GATT negotiations: France's rejection of last year's agreement to lower heavily subsidized European oil-seed exports, and the Clinton administration's rejection of last year's agreement on limits to Europe's government subsidies of the Airbus.
Nevertheless, Mr. Clinton's speech set forth a positive vision. Now he has to deal with Congress -- first in pushing through the trade accord with Mexico and then in getting fast-track authority to secure a world trade agreement essential to global well-being and stability.