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Digest of Polls Shows Modest American Support For New Free Trade Agreements in Pacific

November 10, 2011

Digest of US Opinion on the Global Economy
Digest of International Opinion on the Global Economy
Public Opinion on Global Issues homepage
Stewart Patrick analysis

As the leaders of the United States and other members of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum prepare for the annual APEC summit with an eye to furthering free trade in the Pacific region, newly updated digests of American and international public opinion present some striking findings on what US citizens think about trade.

Despite the economic downturn, American public support for international trade and globalization remains fairly strong. Nevertheless, American support for free trade agreements with Pacific nations, after rising before the economic crisis, has since softened.

These digests have been developed by the Council on Foreign Relation's International Institutions and Global Governance program and the Program on International Policy Attitudes. They provide comprehensive analyses of international and US polls on the world's most pressing challenges -- and the institutions designed to address them. The digest of US opinion on the global economy can be found here and the digest of comparative international polling here. Analysis of these findings by Stewart Patrick can be found on his blog.

The digest of US opinion found various polls showing Americans continue to view globalization with a broadly positive attitude. For example, in a 2011 Pew poll, 67% of Americans said that "the growing trade and business ties between our country and other countries" is positive for the United States--the same proportion of people who felt this way in 2009 (65%) and 2010 (66%).

However, US public support for free trade agreements with specific nations, including Asian nations, has fallen off recently. Polling from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs that examined willingness to "have a free trade agreement that would lower barriers such as tariffs" with several Pacific countries elicited more negative responses. For Japan, China, and South Korea, support dropped between 2008 and 2010 after having risen substantially between 2006 and 2008.

Support for a free trade agreement with Japan was at majority levels in 2010, with 52% in favor. However this was down from 59% in 2008.

Only 37% of Americans supported a free trade agreement with China in 2010, down from 41 % in 2008. This may be related to the same poll's finding that 63% assumed that Chinese trade practices were unfair.

Attitudes about free trade with South Korea--with which the US just ratified a free trade agreement in October--have varied depending on how it was asked. In the 2010 CCGA poll, when simply asked whether the US should have a free trade agreement with South Korea, support was just 37%, down from 49% in 2008.

However, when respondents were asked to consider the pros and cons of a free trade agreement, support was substantially higher. With a separate sample CCGA first presented arguments saying "supporters...argue [the FTA] will create new jobs in the United States, and strengthen our relationship with an important strategic and trading partner," while "opponents argue that the agreement would not provide enough access to South Korean markets" and "would result in lost jobs for American workers." Presented this way, support was 10 points higher at 47 percent, with 44 percent opposed.

Furthermore, once Congress was considering the free trade agreement and Gallup asked in 2011 about how Congress should act, 53 percent said that Congress should pass it. Presumably, just the fact that Congress was considering the agreement lent it greater credibility.

The digests also reveal that trade adjustment assistance (TAA), which retrains workers in industries that suffer as a result of the agreements, may have a significant effect on support for free trade agreements. As TAA is a hotly debated issue during trade agreement negotiations in Congress, the polls provide a vital resource to policymakers.

In a 2010 CCGA poll that asked about "agreements to lower trade barriers" and included the option of the government having "programs to help workers who lose their jobs," only 36 percent still opposed free trade agreements. Fifty-seven percent favored them--43% with the condition of trade adjustment assistance and 14% without it.

Key findings from the digest of international opinion are as follows:

General Views of Globalization and International Trade
International polls find strong support for globalization, though views lean moderately toward the position that the pace of globalization is too fast. People generally see international trade as positive for their country, their nation's companies and a bit less so for their self and family. However, views are more mixed about the impact of international trade on jobs and the environment.

Response to Economic Downturn
Polling conducted in the spring of 2009--during the depths of the global recession--found some softening of majority support for globalization in general with majorities in many nations favoring a temporary increase in protectionism in light of the recession. Europeans have responded to the downturn by looking to the EU to play a stronger role in the European economy.

International Regulation of Financial Institutions
Global publics show very strong support for the broad idea of having a global regulating body to ensure that big financial institutions follow international standards. However, publics are divided on whether nations should be free to regulate their own banks that operate internationally. This suggests that some people have not thought through the implications of international regulation of financial institutions. Europeans favor the European Union taking a strong role in reforming how international financial markets are regulated.

Including Labor and Environmental Standards in Trade Agreements
Consistent with concerns about the impact of international trade on jobs and the environment, overwhelming majorities around the world, including in developing countries, support including labor and environmental standards in trade agreements.

Assessments of Countries' Fairness in Trade
Inhabitants of developing countries generally see rich countries as not playing fair in trade negotiations with poor countries. Africans perceive that they do not benefit from trade as much as rich countries do. Europeans have mixed views on whether U.S. trade practices are fair, but lean toward seeing Japan as fair.

Regional Trade Relations
Pacific Rim nations place a high priority on economic relations with each other and generally favor creating free trade relations with each other, though Americans have more mixed views. China, Japan, and South Korea favor a free trade agreement with the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN). They also favor an East Asia free trade area, but differ on whether to include the United States in it. Views are divided as to whether growing economic relations increase or decrease the likelihood of military conflict. Europeans and Americans favor a new initiative to enhance transatlantic trade and investment ties.

The World Bank and IMF
In general, majorities in most countries express a positive view of the influence of international financial institutions, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). While both get mildly positive ratings in nearly all countries, the World Bank is more popular than the IMF and a few countries, particularly Argentina and Brazil, have distinctly negative views of the IMF. Publics in many beneficiary countries show high levels of enthusiasm, while those in donor countries are more modest in their support, though still predominantly positive.

The World Trade Organization
The World Trade Organization has a positive international image and there is support for strengthening it. Most countries polled, including the United States, say that their government should comply with adverse WTO decisions.

Global Corporations
Views of the international role of global corporations are mixed. Generally speaking, people are inclined to believe they have a positive influence internationally, but also lean toward not trusting them to operate in the best interests of their society. Africans, especially, hold a very positive view of global corporations and trust them to operate in the best interests of their society.

Foreign Investment
Publics in most countries have a negative view of foreigners buying companies in their country.

Trade and Poverty Reduction
Majorities in most developed and developing countries believe that, to reduce poverty, rich countries should allow more imports from developing countries.


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