Interview “When Politics and Trade Collide”

Free trade, and the impact it has on U.S. workers, has become a hot-button issue on the presidential campaign trail. Neal Asbury, the Small Business Administration’s Exporter of the Year, explains why America has nothing to fear in the global market.

From: By: Angus Loten

Free trade has taken a lot of heat since the Democratic presidential primary, when both Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton vilified NAFTA, blaming the 14-year-old trade pact with Canada and Mexico on widespread job losses in the U.S. manufacturing sector. Obama, who has since clinched his party’s presidential nomination, has pledged to renegotiate the deal to better protect American workers. That kind of talk makes Neal Asbury wince. Asbury, whose foodservice equipment export firm helped launch China’s second McDonald’s, has managed global business interests for U.S. manufacturers for over a quarter century. He says what American workers need are more free trade deals, not fewer. The president of Weston, Fla.-based Greenfield Worldtrade, Asbury was recently named Small Business Exporter of the Year by the Small Business Administration. He spoke about NAFTA, Obama’s bid for the presidency, and why U.S. small businesses — and their employees — have nothing to fear in the global market.

You’ve called NAFTA one of the most important international trade agreements of the 20th century. What has it done for American businesses?

Free trade agreements, like NAFTA, work because they bring us much closer to the kind of trade that exists domestically between the 50 states. They are comprehensive and not only deal with eliminating tariffs on manufactured and agricultural products but open up service markets and government procurement.

They regulate labor rights, set safety standards, protect the environment, defend against intellectual piracy, and instill due process. In short, they level the playing field. They must be vigorously pursued. We need more trade agreements like NAFTA.

What do you make of Barack Obama’s anti-free trade stance during the primaries? How do you expect the issue to play out in the general elections?

Sen. Obama is pandering to the blue-collar vote in key swing states that have mistakenly placed blame for their economic insecurity on our trade agreements. Ironically, it is because of the lack of trade agreements with our key trading partners such as China, Japan, India, and Brazil that we are not growing our manufacturing sector jobs.

If Sen. Obama was truly concerned for the American worker and their families he would be presenting his vision to make American exporters more competitive. He would be fighting to take down barriers to U.S. exports that stubbornly exist throughout the world. He would be using Free Trade Agreements to improve labor rights, as a catalyst for real poverty alleviation at home and abroad, as an important tool for corruption eradication, as one of the most effective ways to implement meaningful environmental protections. Instead he seems to have given up on American ingenuity and our ability to compete. He does not grasp the power of trade and, unfortunately for all Americans, not likely to change his misguided message throughout the general election.

What do you tell American workers who are worried about losing their jobs to foreign competitors?

The simple truth is the United States is effectively a duty-free market. The average tariff on products entering the U.S. is less than 3 percent. This is peanuts to pay to participate in the world’s most open and lucrative market. Contrary to what some may lead us to believe, the United States has very few protective tariffs on manufactured goods. If we did they would be squarely against World Trade Organization rules.

If we were to turn the clock back to 1994, before NAFTA was implemented, the average cost of our imports from Mexico would increase by a mere 2 percent, whereas American products exported to Mexico would increase by more than 30 percent. This would make absolutely no difference in what we presently import, but it would have a dramatic impact on our exports. Mexico would simply source those products it currently imports from the United States from others, such as the European Union, where Mexico has in place a free trade agreement. As a result, thousands of American well-paying jobs created by our exports would be lost and in return we would not create a single job. We have already lost the jobs we are going to lose. It is now time to bring them back through increased exports that only free trade agreements can achieve.

The big winner in all agreements of this kind is American exporters, who will return the favor by hiring more American workers. Since NAFTA was implemented, the U.S. added 30 million new jobs. The problem is not NAFTA; it is that we do not have free-trade agreements with China, Japan, India, and others that make up most of our suffocating trade deficit…

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