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A brief Q&A with the U.S. trade representative

December 11, 2009 |  6:34 pm

Ron Kirk Ambassador Ron Kirk, the former mayor of Dallas whom President Obama tapped to be the U.S. trade representative, has solid credentials as a free-trader -- more solid, alas, than the man he works for. While in Southern California to speak to a state legislators' association, small businesses and studio executives, he dropped by to chat with The Times' editorial board, offering a status report on pending trade agreements and an overview of the administration's trade strategy. He was circumspect -- trade talks are done in secret, after all (more on that later) -- so the session was long on explanation and short on revelation. Some of the notable quotes appear after the jump; scroll down for links to audio recordings from the session.

Kirk declined to get into specifics regarding the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement that the U.S. has been negotiating for three years with selected trading partners. He acknowledged the demands for more disclosure from some quarters, but he said secrecy goes with the territory:

We have been more aggressive than any other country in getting our partners to agree to release in some cases draft text earlier than we have before, and we do understand that there are some groups in particular that always want more. But I will tell you, we are doing everything we can to fully comply with the president’s directive [to disclose as much as possible], while at the same time live within a world in which discretion and protecting and the confidentiality of the information given to us by the partners that we sit across the table from is essential to us getting the desired outcome that will help all American businesses.

Some consumer groups have complained that the copyright industries have too much influence over the process, but Kirk said that wasn't the case. "We give an open ear to every group that has an opinion, a thought on this.… We are very careful to make sure that we hear from all of the relevant constituents." And though he wouldn't directly address the concern that the treaty is a back-door attempt by copyright holders to reduce consumers' rights, he noted that lawmakers have made it clear that he can't stray far, if at all, from existing U.S. statutes. "Congress always makes it plain to me, 'We don’t want you creating rights through trade agreements greater than what we have in the United States.' " That's particularly true on labor and intellectual property issues, he said (although it's worth remembering that Congress has historically been far more inclined to strengthen copyrights than to weaken them):

There is an extreme sensitivity in Congress that we do not subvert the intent or will of Congress through trade law by what we agree to in treaties. Now, we also balance that against a reality. Our trading partners will often come to us and say, it’s sure hard for you to ask us to do more than what you’re willing to do in the United States. It is part science, but it is also part art, to make sure we address the right need.

On the pending free trade agreement with Colombia:

There continues to be very strong concern among a very large number of members of Congress over the continued violence against labor leaders, farm organizers, journalists and others. We have been very candid in addressing those concerns with the Colombians....

I do believe that Colombia and President [Alvaro] Uribe have actually made remarkable progress in addressing the issue of violence. I don’t know that enough Americans appreciate the fact that President Uribe represents a man whose father and brother were murdered by the drug cartels. This is not someone who takes the issue of violence lightly. But we do think there are structural reforms that Colombia can make that will help us make the case for them, at least in terms of having in place a judicial, legal mechanism that will allow them to prove that they’re serious about punishing those who exert that violence.

On the pending free-trade agreement with South Korea, which Kirk said is being held up by a dispute over U.S. automakers' access to the Korean market:

With the European Union essentially signing the free-trade agreement that we’ve worked on, I do think it creates an added sense of urgency to try to get that resolved sooner rather than later.

Kirk called the North American Free Trade Agreement an "extraordinary success." Nevertheless, he said, now that all tariffs have been effectively removed, the U.S. wants to look at other issues it may have with Mexico -- including environmental and labor concerns. Finally, on the World Trade Organization's seemingly endless (and fruitless) Doha round of talks, Kirk said developing nations have to do more to open their markets:

In order to be able to get Doha to a conclusion, we’re going to have to do something differently than what they tried the last three times and failed. We think using Doha not only as a development tool but as a true market-access opening tool, not only for the benefit of the U.S. but for all economies, is the best way to do it.

Now for the audio:

Americans' mixed feelings about trade

Three pending free trade pacts

The Panama FTA

The Colombia FTA

The South Korea FTA

The effect of the recession

The administration's strategic view

The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement

Mexico and NAFTA

Brazil and the WTO Doha round

The WTO Doha round

Photo credit: Saul Loeb AFP/Getty Images

-- Jon Healey

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