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Archimedes on the Potomac

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Trade guru Bob Zoellick thinks he can lever even protectionists into a deal

Bob Zoellick's office exudes the kind of narcotic Washington class that enforces padded footsteps and whispered conversations. Hard across the street from the White House, the office of the U.S. Trade Representative has the obligatory American flags behind the desk and predictable 19th century prints along the walls. But on a corner table, a surprise: protest posters from ACT UP that say STOP KILLING AIDS VICTIMS BOB ZOELLICK. Zoellick had his secretary pick them up from demonstrators outside his office a few weeks ago. "These must be from before," I said to him when we met last Thursday, meaning that the ACT UP demonstration had surely preceded his charges that U.S. drug companies were pricing AIDS drugs out of the reach of developing countries. "No," Zoellick laughed. "Those came after."

The greeting that President Bush received at his first trade summit in Quebec--tear gas and rioters--was as much a reminder as those posters that trade has become an electric issue. Some of the points are legit: signing a country like Brazil to a trade pact could make it harder for Brazilians living with AIDS to get cheap counterfeit drugs. But there is also blind fury from parts of the world where trade is seen as a tool of imperialism, not modernization. It may be even harder to undo that perception than it is to ink agreements on trade. Unfortunately, for Zoellick, it's a top priority.

Zoellick's resume is one of the best in Washington. He was James Baker's right hand during Bush I, and has been an invaluable adviser to Bush II. During the Florida recount, Republican operatives wowed by his district-to-district recall labeled him "the human adding machine." Last week, as he took a break from briefing Bush for the summit, he spelled out his strategy for getting trade deals done.

Zoellick thinks he can lever almost anyone into a deal by preying on the fear of being left out. Last month, for instance, he wanted to speed up Brazil's march to free trade. But local politics were holding that up. So instead of flying to Sao Paulo, Zoellick flew to Santiago, where he inked a deal with Chile. The result was like a chapter from The Rules: Brazil now wants to speed up talks. But not everyone--the mobs that raged in Quebec, say, or Congressmen from steelmaking districts--can be levered. Zoellick will have to break them or go around them. Some ideas:

E-GATT. Zoellick needs a big win showing that trade is a Net-age worry. E-firms like Amazon are dying to get into world markets but are relentlessly blocked, both by local governments that want to control the Net and by infrastructure problems (ever tried to FedEx a book in China?). Zoellick should craft an e-initiative that would help U.S. firms extend their cyberdominance. Even a limited deal could be a fast, high-profile score for him.

SUPER SIZE. Congress is dickering over three key deals: trade agreements with Jordan, Vietnam and fast-track authority that would empower Bush to pursue trade pacts. Bush should lump these together and force the Hill to act. House Ways and Means ranking member Charles Rangel says he wouldn't like to get jammed that way, but admits he might not be able to stop it. The bold move would force opponents to deal.

DIVIDE 'EM UP. The hottest trade opposition comes from environmentalists and labor activists who have linked up with implacable protectionists like unions. Zoellick should unbundle the camps by bringing the activists inside his tent to create work and environment standards that could be stamped on any deal he cuts. A dramatic gesture like that could co-opt enough of the anti-trade crowd to give Zoellick the breathing room he needs to make real deals happen. He's chosen a tough task. A little elan will go a long way.



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Cover Date: April 30, 2001

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