Global trade ‘critical’ to economic turnaround, new U.S. trade representative says

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Hizzoner is now His Excellency.

From his office a few steps from the White House, Ron Kirk, the Dallas mayor turned trade ambassador, now presides over the government’s elite cadre of diplomats and litigators trained to fend off piracy, deter dumping and pry open markets for American products from beef to wheat to tractors.

“Global trade nearly fell off a cliff last year,” Kirk said in his first interview as U.S. trade representative. “Global trade can be and will be a critical component to turning around this economic crisis.”

It’s been a few weeks since the Senate confirmed Kirk, a lawyer, free-trade advocate and friend of President Barack Obama. And already it’s clear: Kirk’s biggest challenges may come not from protectionism abroad but from “headwinds” at home.

With that in mind, Kirk hasn’t just carved out time getting to know such counterparts as the World Trade Organization director and the European Union trade commissioner (whose title, “baroness,” he playfully admired at a photo-op).

He has also been schmoozing key U.S. lawmakers, among them Charlie Rangel, the raspy House chairman who oversees tariffs. They go way back; Rangel even stumped for Kirk in the 2002 Senate race the former mayor lost.

The charm and connections help explain why Obama chose someone who admits his trade expertise is limited. With economic anxiety sapping public support for trade, Obama needed someone with the salesmanship and charisma to tame City Hall and, more recently, command $1 million a year as a lawyer and lobbyist.

Kirk’s charge isn’t merely to cut deals and enforce complex rules. It’s to restore the perception that trade deals can create prosperity, not just send jobs overseas.

“We have got to do a better job of articulating to the American people how these things work,” Kirk said.

Kirk has always had a knack for dealing with all sides.

Still, he emphasized, “I didn’t take on this job to complete the third term of George Bush’s trade agenda.”

Kirk told Congress he’s in no rush to finalize pacts left pending with South Korea, Panama and Colombia. The South Korea deal, in particular, needs work, he said, and any new deal must pass the new president’s tests: Do they create and protect U.S. jobs? Is there enough “social accountability” in terms of labor and climate protection?

“He believes in trade, but we believe in a trade that reflects our values and broadly is going to work for all American families,” Kirk said.

The real “pot of gold” is a long-stalled round of talks involving 120 or so countries, he added.

It’s a top priority for him, though Europeans are skeptical about Obama’s commitment to completing the talks, which started in 2001.

And the benefits the talks offer the U.S. are vague, while requirements to curb farm subsidies and other trade barriers are explicit.

And that’s hardly his only gnarly problem. The “Buy America” provision Congress inserted in the recent economic-stimulus legislation undermined U.S. denunciations of protectionism, in the view of many allies and trade analysts, though Kirk defends it.

“The Buy America provision was done in a way that is wholly and completely consistent with our obligations under the WTO and our other bilateral trade agreements,” he insisted.

And there’s a trade spat with Mexico over Congress’ decision to bar Mexican trucks, in violation of NAFTA. That prompted retaliatory tariffs on $2.4 billion in U.S. goods last month. Whatever lawmakers’ reasons _ he was careful not to antagonize anyone whose support he’ll need _ there were “unintended consequences” on the U.S. job market.

For U.S. exporters, he said, “the damage is real. It was a hard lesson to learn.”

Kirk’s relationships in Congress could prove critical as he pushes Obama’s agenda.

Richard Fisher, president of the Dallas Federal Reserve and deputy trade representative under Bill Clinton, called Kirk’s ability to cultivate such relationships more valuable than mastery of trade minutiae.

“You learn that stuff if you’re smart, and Ron is smart,” he said. “You know Washington _ access is everything. … I used to say it was easy to negotiate with the Chinese. The tough part is negotiating with the American Congress.”


© 2009, The Dallas Morning News. Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.