By SUSAN BLOWER
WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Ron Kirk announced he would leave his post later this month, after four years that have delivered pivotal free trade agreements with Panama, Korea and Colombia, as well as a new agreement with Japan to expand U.S. beef imports.
In an interview with Farm World, Kirk said his greatest challenge has been to convince the “American public that trade is still in America’s best interest, while at the same time, trying to build some patience and understanding with our trade stakeholders.
“By demonstrating to the American republic that we would enforce our rights and stand up for our farmers and ranchers, workers and manufacturers, we helped to build a new level of support for our trade policy in Congress and among our stakeholders,” Kirk continued.
“That support ultimately resulted in our ability to pass three agreements, with Panama, Korea and Colombia – in some cases with record margins – and move forward with a much more progressive and thoughtful trade agenda.”
Various farm groups thanked Kirk for his commitment to promoting global trade during his tenure.
“The National Corn Growers Assoc. (NCGA) greatly appreciates and thanks U.S. Trade Representative Kirk for his tireless efforts to promote American agricultural products in the global marketplace,” NCGA President Pam Johnson said.
“We applaud his efforts to pass and implement the three free trade agreements with Korea, Colombia and Panama. In addition, we appreciate the pivotal role he played in lifting the outdated Jackson-Vanik amendment (restoring normalized trade with Russia),” Johnson added.
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Assoc. (NCBA) was likewise complimentary of Kirk’s work in opening markets, specifically in the deals with Korea, Colombia and Panama. “He has done a tremendous job in opening markets and improving access all over the world. Korea is one of our top five markets for beef. In Colombia and Panama, (the deal will allow us) a foothold in emerging Central and South American markets,” said Kent Bacus, associate director of legislative affairs for NCBA.
In addition, the expanded trade deal with Japan, which just took effect Feb. 1, will increase U.S. beef exports by $500 million in 2013, Bacus said.
The free trade agreements with Korea, Colombia and Panama, ratified by Congress in October 2011, represent the largest package since Congress passed the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, according to NCGA.
The deals were supported by Republicans, centrist Democrats and the Obama team, while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and other left-leaning Democrats opposed them, saying the deals would take away manufacturing jobs.
Work on the three separate trade agreements began in 2007, when George W. Bush was president.
Kirk’s emphasis on trade policy that embraces social change can be seen in the final versions of the deals. Obama renegotiated aspects of the deals to include additional market access for U.S. auto manufacturers in South Korea, protection of the rights of Colombian workers, and improved tax transparency in Panama, according to a CNN fact check analysis.
While the agreements have been in effect for a short time, Kirk said that agricultural exports to Colombia have increased 26 percent from May to November in 2012, compared to the same period in 2011.
In the trade agreement with Korea, which took effect last March, Korea’s $1 trillion economy is now open to American interests. Korean consumers are buying cheese from Wisconsin, almonds and wine from California, and lemons and orange juice from Florida, as well as cars from Michigan and Illinois, Kirk said.
Panama’s agreement has been in effect only three months.
Bacus expressed the hope Kirk’s successor will be equally successful in leading the way to expanded trade.
A deal in the works is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, to which President Obama is committed. Kirk’s successor will continue that commitment, as well as a “more dynamic relationship with the European Union” and initiatives in Geneva and around the world, Kirk said.
The Corn Growers are in support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It is the first international commercial agreement pursued by the Obama Administration from scratch. It would set binding rules on service-sector regulation, investment, patents and copyrights, government procurement, financial regulation, labor and environmental standards, as well as trade in industrial goods and agriculture.
Kirk plans to take time off to spend with his family when he leaves office. He will then return to the private sector to continue his work in international trade, he said