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Although yesterday’s Senate vote doesn’t mean that President Obama’s hopes for winning fast track trade negotiating are dead, this historically trade- (and offshoring-) friendly body’s decision to delay debate with a new presidential election cycle already heating up certainly dims the odds. Just as important, their Senate victory starts putting the onus on critics to propose a new U.S. trade strategy. Here are some of my ideas.

First, about the only true statement Mr. Obama has made during the debate over a measure that would prevent Congress from amending newly signed trade agreements is that the status quo on this policy front is unacceptable. To me, the most damning indictment of the current trade landscape is my finding that the portion of U.S. trade flows most influenced by trade deals and related policies has worsened greatly during this feeble economic recovery – and slowed real growth since the last recession.  Since that article was published, that growth toll has risen to nearly 20 percent.

The answer, however, isn’t doubling down on the kinds of treaties that have produced this policy disaster. Nor is it dressing up the current framework with Congressional directives to enforce higher labor and environmental standards at foreign factories. Too many well-intentioned trade critics in particular ignore the immense difficulties Washington has had adequately regulating in the United States. As I’ve repeatedly written, the notion that huge foreign factory complexes can be monitored more effectively doesn’t stand to reason.

I’m much more sympathetic to adding what are called strong, enforceable curbs on foreign currency manipulation to the list of Congress’ mandatory trade negotiating instructions to presidents, but even this idea faces a huge problem. Many of America’s prospective trade deal partners are determined to retain the right to undervalue their currencies to undersell U.S.-origin goods and services for reasons totally unrelated to free markets or underlying competitiveness. Therefore, unless the United States wins unprecedented voting power in the dispute-resolution systems created by new trade agreements, other parties to the deal will easily be able to reject even the best-founded American complaints.

These very weaknesses in the current trade policy models supported by both supporters of current deals (and to a fascinating extent by the critics) start pointing the way to a fundamentally new approach. So do the unmistakable realities that the U.S. market is by far the biggest prize of any trade negotiations; that it enjoys a matchless potential for economic self-sufficiency; and that even though rebounding trade deficits (especially those shaped by policy) are dragging on America’s weak-enough recovery, the U.S. economy has been a global out-performer lately. (Interestingly, preliminary figures have just revealed that the chronically troubled Eurozone expanded faster than America in the first quarter of this year, but the main reasons are improving European trade balances and worsening American deficits.)

As a result, Washington should scrap its commitment to traditional negotiations and the quest for new international deals as the basis for its trade policy. Since access to the American market is so uniquely valuable to most foreign economies, and since Washington has so much more capacity to enforce laws and regulations within the U.S. economy than without, U.S. leaders should focus instead on establishing the terms of doing business in America unilaterally. Foreign governments could certainly retaliate, although the chronically lopsided pattern of global trade can leave no doubt that they’d come out the worse in any resulting “trade war.” It’s far likelier that America’s competitors would, in essence, pay to play.

And here’s another reason that any overseas protests would be short-lived: Because the United States takes seriously values like the rule of law and transparency, an exclusively American-run system for enforcing domestic trade justice would give them a much fairer shake than their own governments often give their own companies and workers in their own economies.

This new approach need not destroy all employment opportunities at America’s trade negotiating agencies. Officials at the U.S. Trade Representative’s office could still find useful work devising deals based on genuine reciprocity. But because the main foreign trade barriers nowadays consist of practices developed and carried out by highly secretive foreign bureaucracies, making evidence painfully difficult to find, determining whether such reciprocity has been achieved would be up to Washington exclusively.

Ironically, many American trade policy critics can be expected to charge that this unilateralism would trample the sovereignty of countries all around the world. But nothing could be further from the truth. Any foreign governments finding the new policy unacceptable would be perfectly free to seek growth and employment and prosperity without utilizing American demand. Of course, the offshoring lobby and various avowed free market champions will angrily condemn the new approach as neanderthal protectionism. But it’s truer to private sector norms in one crucial respect. Rather than giving away for free an enormously valuable asset like the American market, this strategy would charge a price.

Since the new strategy would represent such a dramatic and disruptive policy revolution, it’s best to phase it in – the way current trade agreements phase in agreed-on reductions or elimination of many trade barriers. Economic actors certainly deserve time to adjust. In fact, here’s a possible compromise for the squeamish: Washington could continue seeking trade deals that establish various new rules and standards for U.S. and foreign economies. But America’s role in any dispute-resolution system should be proportionate to the size of its economy in any new free trade zone. So for President Obama’s proposed Pacific Rim trade deal (the Trans-Pacific Partnership), the United States would hold nearly two-thirds of the votes, because America’s gross domestic product equals that percentage of the prospective free trade zone’s economic output. Surely that’s more equitable than the standard one-country-one-vote approach.

These ideas are strong medicine, to be sure. But critics should keep in mind that the historic imbalances produced by America’s current trade strategy helped set the stage for last decade’s financial crisis and its dispiriting aftermath, and that even despite the slow U.S. and global recoveries, trade flows are becoming similarly lopsided again. I’m perfectly willing to acknowledge that superior approaches might be developed. But what have their creators been waiting for?

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