Here in the United States we take free trade for granted. We have access to markets throughout the world, but most of us think nothing of it. We have grown accustomed to the goods and services that make our life easier.
Yet, in the Ukraine, access to free markets has been stomped on by Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych, who has decided that forming a union with Russia is preferred over a relationship with the European Union.
The result is that Ukrainians have taken to the streets in protest and imperiled their lives for the right to have access to free markets. They recognize that the Western world not only brings with it superior goods and services, they also see democracy in action, which terrifies the governments of Ukraine and Russia.
We should not be surprised that news reports indicate Moscow offered financial incentives for the Ukraine not to sign the EU agreement and threatened punitive measures, such as curbing Russian gas supplies this winter.
As I point out in my book, Conscientious Equity, one of the many benefits of free trade is that it exposes millions of people to countries where corruption doesn't deprive the average citizen of the right to control their own destiny. It offers a glimpse into a world where abject poverty is not the norm, where the environment is protected and where intellectual property has value.
This is what Ukrainians aspired to when they won their independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991. Yet, they find themselves once again under the heavy hand of Moscow.
As Andrew Wilson, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London, told USA Today: "They're [Ukrainians] are not protesting against Russia, they're protesting against him [Yanukovych]. His priority is to stay in power, to keep his corruption opportunities available. Europe kind of symbolizes the hope for a change in government and a better life."
So if people are willing to die for free trade in some countries as a way toward a better life, we would expect the U.S. government to be actively promoting free trade agreements. After all, trade is the bedrock of growth, stability and prosperity everywhere. Unfortunately, that is not happening.
Since President Obama has taken office, he has not initiated a single new free trade agreement.
His best chance at achieving some sort of positive legacy in America's trade relations was to help complete the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, with the goal being a trade agreement to boost economic growth both in the United States and the Pacific region.
In addition to the United States, the negotiations include Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Vietnam, Chile and Peru.
Yet, the negotiations are bogged down by unions that perceive any trade agreement as a threat to their membership — although this has never proven to be the case. At every step, the president has allowed trade unions — traditional Obama supporters — to derail trade agreements, which create thousands of U.S. jobs.
We must do a better job elevating the importance trade. We have relegated trade to the sidelines, making Obama's promise to double U.S. exports another failed campaign pledge.
When people are willing to die for greater access to free markets, should the United States sit idly by while another nation demonstrates its yearning for freedom?
Some American congressional representatives have visited the Ukraine to show their solidarity. They should be applauded and encouraged.
The more that people in other countries are exposed to American democracy and free enterprise, the more they will push their governments to adopt Western principles. This is the best way to spread freedom around the world — based on commerce not bloodshed.
In essence, free trade makes our world a safer place, while it creates jobs here at home. These are good-paying jobs — jobs that generate the revenue that increases the tax base that builds our schools, universities, hospitals, highways and ports.
It is these jobs that give our people hope and provide a pathway to their dreams.
It is these jobs that keep our people out of poverty — a condition that should embarrass every American now that recent reports indicate poverty in the United States is at its highest level in 50 years.
We can't allow the aspirations of our own people to fail, when the dreams of nations half a world away are looking at the United States as a beacon of hope. The world is getting smaller and it's time we realize that free trade by its very nature, intertwines nations and our combined destinies.
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