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Roquefort trade war, Stimulus Buy America Brouhaha Shows WTO Model Broken

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By Lori Wallach and Todd Tucker*

Two developments this week provided further illustration that the current NAFTA-WTO model of trade and globalization is fundamentally flawed.

Exhibit A: One of the most contentious issues surrounding the congressional debate on the massive stimulus bill designed to jump start the sinking U.S. economy was... a provision on "Buy America" rules for iron and steel in public works projects?! Opponents of the measure - which include some of the nation's leading offshorers of U.S. jobs, such as GE and Caterpillar - decried the plan to invest our tax dollars in the U.S.economy as a declaration of war against "free trade," and claimed that the measure was WTO-illegal. (As it turns out, on the WTO-legal business, the corporates are lying, as we show here in a detailed memo.)

Exhibit B: The Bush administration, in its final week in office, imposed tariffs of up to 300 percent on French Roquefort cheese, and extended punitive tariffs on truffles, Irish oatmeal, Italian sparkling water and foie gras. The reason? In the 1990s, the Europe Union (EU) had banned the use of artificial hormones for raising beef in response to health concerns. The Clinton administration, at the urging of giant agribusiness companies, challenged this measure at the WTO because it not only banned the chemicals' use by European farmers, but banned imports of artificial-hormone-raised beef. A WTO tribunal ordered the EU to allow in the U.S. beef, and when EU officials, under threat of a massive consumer revolt, refused, the WTO authorized the U.S. to impose retaliatory sanctions. (Canada also sought and received similar authorization.)

When a country's state, local or national policy is ruled against at the WTO, federal authorities are required to take all available steps to force a change in the law - otherwise, they risk facing perpetual trade sanctions. It's a fairly powerful system: in the nearly 15-year history of the WTO, countries have always watered down or eliminated the challenged laws, including in the cases brought against U.S. laws (which we've lost nearly 90 percent of, by the way). There's only been one exception, and that's the beef-hormone case. The Europeans - in an admirable display of moxie - decided that ensuring consumer safety was their top priority. Although they've been paying out their pound of flesh for a decade - at a rate of over $120 million per year since 1999 - the Europeans apparently weren't suffering enough, and Bush upped the cross-sanctions on his way out the door.

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The larger question raised by these two conflagrations is why political leaders signed up food-safety and government procurement rules - both quintessential, non-trade domestic issues - to comply with so-called "trade" agreements in the first place. A big part of the answer is that they were pushed by companies like GE and Caterpillar and large agribusiness multinationals, who enjoy wild privileges under these pacts that encourage the offshoring of U.S. jobs. Since then, corporations have used the overreaching "trade" agreement rules to attack an array of important non-trade, public-interest policies. The latest installment is the current scare campaign to water down Congress' response to the economic crisis, and gin up the attack on important food-safety measures abroad.

Nations - not just the U.S., but all nations - should have a right to invest in themselves, spend their tax dollars in the manner deemed best by their democratically elected officials, and pursue other public-interest policies. President Obama and the last two classes of freshmen members of Congress came to office on pledges to overhaul the failed globalization policies of the past, and pursue global integration and cooperation on fairer terms. Let's hope that they stand their ground: our future prosperity and security depends on it.

*The writers are director and research director, respectively, of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch division. They blog at EyesOnTrade.Org.