THE BLOG

An Enduring Legacy -- The Democratic Party and Free and Open Trade

01/21/2014 09:49 am ET | Updated Mar 23, 2014

Looking back at the history of the Democratic Party since Franklin Roosevelt, modern Democrats have much to be proud of: the successful stewardship of our nation through WWII; the creation of the United Nations; a strong partnership with the GOP in fighting and winning the Cold War; rescuing the nation from the Great Depression and the Great Recession; the establishment of a strong and comprehensive safety net for the old and poor; courageous support of successful Civil Rights Era reforms; the launching of a 21st century American health care system that finally provides for universal coverage; a strong track record of job growth and deficit reduction in recent presidencies; and of late, the fight to extend equality to LGBT Americans and the growing ranks of people of color and immigrants (feel free to add things left out -- there are more, of course).

It is a remarkable track record indeed. But I want to make the case that of all these accomplishments, there is one more that has been the most consequential, that has done more to provide opportunity and alleviate poverty around the world than any other set of policies in modern history -- that is the creation of the global system launched by Presidents Roosevelt and Truman at the end of WWII built on the foundation of free and open trade.

There can be little doubt, looking back at global architecture established by the leaders of the Democratic Party at the end of WWII, that free and open trade was seen as inextricably linked to the promotion of democracy and political liberty around the world. That to prevent yet another World War, our leaders imagined a world at peace, where the industriousness and creativity of everyday people all around the world linked together through free and open trade would create a global middle class -- a sensible, powerful bulwark against totalitarianism of both right and left. This spirit is best captured in FDR's famous "Four Freedoms" speech, which is perhaps the most important speech given by a Democrat in the long and storied history of our party.

To a great degree this inherently liberal vision has both triumphed on the global stage, and worked. A majority of the world's 200-plus countries are some form of democracy today. Trade flows are exploding, a truly global middle class is emerging, standards of living are rising are all around the world, and poverty is falling at extraordinary rates -- all while the population of the world has more than tripled. Large scale global conflagrations have been avoided, and international institutions of peace and civility retain encouraging degrees of effectiveness almost 70 years after their creation.

This global system, imagined and built by leaders of the Democratic Party of the United States, has created more opportunity for more people than any other political system in human history. It is not without its flaws, and more must be done in the developed world and here in the US to ensure broad-based growth in an age of more virulent global competition and the "rise of the rest." But over this period, in this system, America itself has created unparalleled opportunity and prosperity for its own citizens, and produced technologies and companies who have made life better for billions of people around the world.

Through his vision of new trade liberalization arrangements in both the Pacific and the Atlantic, President Obama has put the weight of his presidency behind deepening, broadening and modernizing this successful global system. The trade deals would further liberalize trade in economies with more than 60 percent of global output. They do so while attempting to establish higher standards for labor and the environment, while fashioning new rules for the digital age in areas like cloud services and intellectual property. At their core these trade rounds bind countries to higher and more responsible standards of capitalism than they might practice otherwise, while opening foreign markets to US businesses who are far more prepared for the rigors of 21st century global competition than most of their peers.

From a geopolitical perspective, these far-reaching deals also keep America front and center in the economic and political arrangements of the Pacific, Latin America, and Europe. It re-affirms America's commitment to this free and open rules-based global system, providing a powerful counterbalance to those countries whose leaders have a different view of the political liberties and economic opportunities offered to their own people.

This last point deserves a bit of emphasis. We know from history that eras of peace and prosperity can give way to eras of repression and belligerence. Today, due to the in part to the peace and prosperity of the modern age, the world is very young. More than 50 percent of the people alive today are under 30. In many developing nations, two-thirds of their people are under 30. To a great degree these young people will dictate what kind of world we will have in the 21st century. It is essential, that as much as possible, this next global generation both be given a liberal and open global system, and be taught the lessons of why such a system is preferred to other, less liberal alternatives. Concluding these visionary deals, passing them through the US Congress and implementing them before President Obama leaves office will send a powerful signal to liberalism's opponents that this system will continue to prevail in the decades ahead.

And, of course, the opposite is true. If these agreements fail to pass through an inward looking Congress we will be sending exactly the wrong signal to the rising new generation soon to inherit power in the world -- that indeed free and open societies, built on responsible capitalism and respectful of human rights, were a product of a different era, lost to history by leaders and nations unwilling to renew their commitment to a global system that has done so much for so many.

The case for these nascent trade deals is powerful. But at the same time, proponents cannot ignore what has happened in the US economy since the global economy became truly global in the late 1990s and early part of the 21st century. Job growth in the US has slowed, and American workers have seen their wages stagnate. Policy makers here cannot really expect the American public to buy into these far-reaching agreements unless more is done to ensure their success in this more competitive world of the 21st century. Accompanying the passage of these trade deals should be a comprehensive agenda for the American people -- one that makes unprecedented investments in skills and knowledge, modern infrastructure, lower cost and cleaner energy, long-term research and development and innovative health technologies. We should also modernize our immigration system to meet the challenges of this global economy by passing a version of the Senate immigration bill, and raise the minimum wage. The US needs a new strategy to ensure our peoples -- not just our company's success -- in a more competitive age (NDN has been arguing for such an agenda since 2005).

In the final years of the Obama presidency, the US Congress has an extraordinary opportunity to both strengthen and buttress the global system which has done so much good for the world for so long, and to raise our game at home so we can meet the challenges of what is becoming, inevitably, a more competitive world. If the two parties can come together to do both of these things, this will become an historic period indeed, a period where despite the rancor the two American political parties came together to make both the world and our nation stronger and better in a new, uncertain age.

As a lifelong Democrat, I am deeply proud of what our party has done over the past several generations. We have left America and the world far better than we found it. A major part of our party's success has been the construction of a global system which has given far better lives and more opportunities to billions of people. As we begin a needed debate about our economic and trade policies here in the US, my hope is that modern Democrats fashion a set of answers to the challenges of the moment that strengthen, modernize and improve this global system that is perhaps our party's greatest legacy.