U.S. policymakers don't seem to grasp that free trade in Asia is moving ahead with or without American participation. Indeed, the Trans-Pacific Partnership itself was begun in 2005 by Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore. Not until 2008 did Washington express interest in joining.
Yet American politicians, particularly from the Democratic Party, seem only to be increasing their resistance to greater U.S. free trade activity. Late last year, 151 Democrats from the House of Representatives sent President Barack Obama a letter stating their opposition to his proposed fast-track authority for promoting free trade. A senior Democrat, Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, lauded Sen. Harry Reid's dismissal of fast-track legislation, arguing that more free trade deals will lead to a further loss of American jobs.
Indeed, in some ways, the domestic political fight over fast-track authority reflects a larger U.S. debate over what its global role should be. After over a decade of war in the Middle East and more than a half-decade of economic recession and stagnation, there is a growing isolationist sense in the country.
The fact that America's underemployment rate stands at 13% and the labor force participation rate has plunged to its lowest level in nearly 40 years has not changed the opinions of many American politicians who believe that opening up to free trade is dangerous. They refuse to recognize that the employment environment can be strengthened by creating more export opportunities. Such a development will also bring back into the workforce many Americans who have given up hope. In addition, greater trade opportunities will help encourage many American workers who lack the skills needed to compete in the global economy to get a better education to become more employable. That, in turn, will help U.S.-based companies become more competitive globally.
A final piece of the puzzle is that free trade should be a strong part of America's foreign policy, especially in Asia. Obama repeatedly talked about the TPP as one of the legs of the U.S. "pivot" toward Asia. He and others saw the TPP as a way to bring together free market economies and help move participating countries further along a democratic route. Yet Obama himself must be faulted for not working hard enough to convince his own party of the benefits of free trade.
It is time for the U.S. Congress to recognize that America cannot thrive if it is isolated economically in the world. Free trade, properly structured, promotes open economies and political systems and can help America recover from its continuing economic sluggishness.