Phil Levy on the Failure of KORUS

Phil Levy of AEI paints a dark picture of the collapse of the Korean-U.S. FTA negotiations. As Levy explains, the political forces arrayed against the deal were powerful in the U.S. and in Korea:

 

The economic merits and demerits have been in full public view since the agreement was originally concluded in the spring of 2007. The agreement offered substantial market opening, but left some questions regarding access to the South Korean market, especially for U.S. autos and beef. Those products face barriers other than simple border tariffs. Such non-tariff barriers are harder to negotiate away, though the KORUS agreement certainly tried. There was substantial political opposition to the agreement within both countries, though the Koreans managed to overcome theirs. Influential voices such as Ford Motor Co. and organized labor in the United States criticized the agreement as inadequate.

The importation of U.S. beef has been a serious lightning rod in Korea, which sparked massive street protests in 2008. Basically, our Korean partners made big political sacrifices to come to the negotiating table — much bigger than any sacrifices we were prepared to make. Levy continues:

The well-established opposition just brings us to the stunning, perhaps unprecedented diplomatic incompetence just displayed by the White House. The concerns and obstacles that impede a new KORUS agreement were fully apparent in June when Obama announced he would have an agreement in time for the Seoul G-20 meetings (now underway). The announcement was remarkable at the time because so much of the U.S. president’s statements on trade have been vague, aspirational, and timeless. This was a promise to have a specific agreement concluded by a specific date. [Emphasis added.]

 

One has to assume that the president’s announcement was not made off the cuff, but rather reflected the considered judgment of his foreign policy team. 

The breakdown could not have come at a worse time. The United States has been working to assert its relevance in Asia. Concerns about protectionist pressures amidst economic troubles raise the stakes in bolstering the global trading system. Beyond economic questions, countries around the world are wondering about the strength of a president who just suffered a major political setback.

Though he may not have foreseen all of the difficulties he would be facing at this juncture, last summer Obama named the time and place of his global credibility test. And he just failed it.

Fortunately for president, only a handful of voters have been following the KORUS negotiations, and the political costs of this failure will be limited. I can’t help but think that this is part of a broader pattern of overpromising and underdelivering on the foreign policy front, though I’d certainly be interested in hearing other interpretations. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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