Buying American, Buying Allies

Throughout this presidential campaign, Sen. John Kerry has accused President Bush of “job outsourcing” on his watch.

As Kerry comes within striking range of Bush, denouncing outsourcing (search) sounds good. It fires up his labor base, as “fair trade, not free trade” enthralls those really seeking protectionism (search).

John Kerry should know better. He must know better, as do his top advisors. After all, Bill Perry, Madeleine Albright, and Dick Holbrooke — the big three Kerry foreign policy gurus — all heralded free trade (search) as a highlight of the Clinton presidency.

Indeed, it was. And, indeed, Kerry stood tall in backing free trade agreements (search). But that was then — before his presidential campaign cranked up.

His pandering was stopped — temporarily, I suspect — during the second debate by moderator Charlie Gibson, who pinned him down: “Senator, I want to extend for a minute. You talk about tax credits to stop outsourcing. But when you have I.B.M. documents that I saw recently where you can hire a programmer for $12 in China, $56 an hour here, tax credits won't cut it.”

Kerry interrupted Gibson’s interruption by admitting that “you can't stop all outsourcing, Charlie. I've never promised that. I'm not going to because that would be pandering. You can't. But what you can do is create a fair playing field, and that's what I'm talking about.”

And talk about it, he surely will — many times more. His economists, as well as his national security aides, have to recognize this as brute politics at its worse.

As policy, it makes no sense economically. The economic benefits of free trade have been clear to every president, both Democrat and Republican alike, for nearly a century.

And it makes no sense as an element of foreign policy. Kerry’s fling into protectionism contradicts his attacks on Bush for “going it alone” and neglecting — if not dissing — the Allies. Protectionism, clothed nowadays as anti-outsourcing, is the ultimate means of going it alone.

Take defense procurement, in general. The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., recently introduced a “buy American” provision for Pentagon procurement. The big problem with this populist provision was that other countries “buy American” more than we “buy Allies.” So such protectionist legislation, by prompting a trade war, would cost more U.S. jobs and U.S. revenue than it would keep here.

Take the competition for a new presidential helicopter, in particular. Heating up now is a battle royale for the $1.6 billion Navy contract to replace the aging Marine One (search) fleet. The team headed by Lockheed Martin for the US101 is being criticized for including British and Italian partners. Media spots now highlight the no-brainer: Shouldn’t the American president ride in an American helicopter?

Well, either entry in the competition would be an American helicopter. Prime contractors in both cases are big American defense firms. But how about the British and Italian partners? Well, cutting two of our closest Allies in on a prominent procurement should be seen as a plus, not a detriment. For politically, it’s wise to work more closely with our best friends in the world. This is clearly Kerry’s pitch — to work closer with our allies than Bush ever did.

And economically, it’s wise too. For, again, they buy more from us than we do from them. According to the U.S. Aerospace Industries Association, last year our aerospace industry exported $4.77 billion to Britain, which sold $3.08 billion of comparable goods to us. With Italy, it was even more lopsided — 4 to 1 in our favor — since the U.S. aerospace industry exported $1.82 billion to Italy, which sold a mere $418 million of comparable goods to us.

Granted, these facts and arguments are more sophisticated than commonly pitched during the presidential debates. Nonetheless, someone like Sen. John Kerry, who prides himself on being sophisticated in foreign policy, should show this sophistication on the critical issues.

Thus far, he sure hasn’t — even though he surely knows better.

Ken Adelman was a U.N. ambassador and arms-control director in the 1980s, accompanying President Reagan on his superpower summits with Mikhail Gorbachev. He now serves on the Defense Policy Board, and co-hosts