Monday, April 9, 2007

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Four different ways of looking at KORUS

A couple of days ago Robert Wright laid down a challenge to me on about this post on the proposed Korea-US free trade agreement (KORUS). I argued that KORUS was a step forward for freer trade. Bob's basic contention is more bilateral FTAs that are created, the more the WTO is undercut. Even worse, these sorts of trade agreements threaten Bob's scheme to have the WTO become the anchor of enhanced global governance.

My answer is as follows: there are several different ways to look at KORUS, and whether it's a good or bad thing depends on what you care about:

1) If you care primarily about global trade expansion -- then you have to have mixed feelings about KORUS. On the one hand, the Doha round would have a far greater impact. On the other hand, as Tyler Cowen points out here, even FTAs without most favored nation clauses tend to encourage the negotiation of more FTAs. Plus, the United States and Korea are not small players in the global trading system. In terms of goods or services, the United States and South Korea are among the top 10 trading powers. In other words, this is a large enough FTA to matter on its own (though click here for a counterargument).

2) If you care primarily about U.S. foreign policy -- then KORUS is a (mostly) good thing. The U.S.-South Korea alliance has not had the best of times during the Bush and Roh presidencies. This kind of deal cements and institutionalizes the relationship despite such tensions. This ain't bad. The one caveat is that for those who would like to see the United States disengage from the Korean peninsula would be hard-pressed to do so while this agreement is in effect.

3) If you care about robust global governance structures -- then this ain't the agreement for you. Wright is correct to suggest that the proliferation of FTAs sends a bad signal to the rest of the world about the relative importance of the WTO. As I've argued elsewhere in nauseating detail, the proliferation of these kind of agreements has the paradoxical potential to weaken the overall power and legitimacy of international institutions.

4) If you care about the ends that Bob Wright cares about -- then you should look on the bright side. As I argued on bloggingheads last year, I'm not terribly optimistic that the WTO will (or should) ever take on the attributes and policies that Bob wants the WTO to adopt. Bilateral trade agreements, on the other hand, allow great powers to be more overt in their leverage. This allows the United States to ask for "trade and" measures that appall many free traders like myself, but please people like Bob.

In the end, I think the positives outweigh the negatives. The negatives of this strategy do exist, however -- and other people might trade off these policy concerns in different ways.

posted by Dan on 04.09.07 at 11:21 AM


I'm wondering why you've taken a sudden interest in this band, but then I uncrossed my eyes, and figured out what this post is really about.

But, I tend to agree, more trade, the better, and the stronger bilateral ties between US and Korea (it won't be split much longer, I don't think), the better.

Also, I'm fairly sure this song is about Korean-USA trade relations (or maybe not).

posted by: XWL on 04.09.07 at 11:21 AM [permalink]

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