WASHINGTON -- When President Bush was asked to defend his support for free trade at the Quebec summit, he said simply, "Trade is very important to this hemisphere. Trade not only helps spread prosperity but trade helps spread freedom."
For the big-money interests who have pushed free trade so vehemently, Mr. Bush's comments were a comforting balance of altruism, patriotism and pro-business rhetoric. But for the rest of us, they were a troubling portrait of the contradictions, inadequacies and ulterior motives of a detrimental trade policy that corporate America wants rammed down our throats.
By saying "trade is very important to this hemisphere," Mr. Bush is basically implying that opponents of free trade deals are isolationists who oppose all commerce.
Since when does being against trade deals that disregard labor, environmental and human rights provisions mean you oppose trade generally? You can be "pro-trade" while opposing "free trade." That may seem novel in Washington's corporate conservative atmosphere, but ensuring that trade policy does not exacerbate world problems is common sense.
Mr. Bush says "trade helps spread prosperity." What kind of trade? Certainly not free-trade deals that disregard human cost at home and give companies a financial incentive to exploit poor conditions abroad. Since the North American Free Trade Agreement became effective Jan. 1, 1994, the United States has lost 766,000 manufacturing jobs as companies moved to Mexico, where labor is cheaper.
In an effort to draw even more American business, Mexican wages have plummeted by 21 percent, creating a veritable race to the bottom in wages between American and Mexican workers fighting for jobs.
But free traders tell us with a straight face that we must let companies troll the world's most impoverished nations for the cheapest possible labor and production costs because this will somehow help people.
We are expected to believe that the coalition of lobbyists, business executives and bankrolled politicians who are pushing this trade policy are joining hands, singing "Kumbaya" and working on behalf of charity and altruism. Are we really that stupid?
Finally, Mr. Bush says we must support free trade because it "helps spread freedom," invoking the ultimate and most shameless appeal to red-blooded Americanism. But if "spreading freedom" were the real goal of trade policy, then why aren't we pursuing trade deals with the most repressive regimes in the world in order to liberate the oppressed masses?
The perfect example of this contradiction is the discrepancy in our relations with China and Cuba. Both are run by repressive communist regimes. Yet at the same time we are told more trade will bring democracy in China, we are told a trade embargo will bring democracy in Cuba. What's the difference?
China's one billion people and no minimum wage are a geyser of cheap labor that big business wants access to while Cuba's population of about 11 million is relatively insignificant in the global economy.
The result is favored trade status for an international aggressor that takes Americans hostage and the simultaneous continuation of a trade embargo against an innocuous island, all in the name of democracy.
With very few absolute truths in the post-Cold War era, one thing stands out: Other countries want to be able to sell products to the United States because we are the richest country on Earth. If we started treating access to the U.S. market as a privilege to be earned -- and not just a given -- we would have an international relations tool more powerful than the deadliest nuclear weapon.
We could stipulate that in order to be able to sell products in the United States, a country must prove it is enforcing human rights, environmental protection and wage standards. Maybe then there would be some meaning to all of the free trade rhetoric.
David Sirota works for a congressman on Capitol Hill. The views expressed here are his own.