Worker-Centered Trade Policy, Peace, and Prosperity

By Elizabeth Baltzan

Verdun, a cemetery where both French and German soldiers were buried together.


Verdun, a cemetery where both French and German soldiers were buried together. Photo: Wikipedia (2013)


Next week, we will recognize Veterans’ Day, which has its roots in the armistice that marked the end of World War I.

This recognition – and our celebration of Labor Day two months earlier – frame the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to worker-centered trade policy. Some worried that the economic terms of the Treaty of Versailles after World War I would come to destabilize Europe and threaten peace itself. The terms of that treaty, along with the economic consequences of the Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, contributed to the end of Germany’s fledgling democracy in 1933 – just as Franklin Delano Roosevelt assumed office in the United States.

FDR recognized that economic security for working people was vital to the sustainability of democracy. The New Deal was in part a response to the Depression and the risks to our own democracy aggravated by economic insecurity. But FDR did not limit his vision to our own borders: he sought to use international economic collaboration to advance those goals around the world.

One of the key expressions of that vision is the Atlantic Charter, which FDR and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill signed in 1941, and remains a cornerstone for the NATO we know today. The foundation of what would become the Bretton Woods system, the Charter reflected “common principles . . . on which [Roosevelt and Churchill] base their hopes for a better future of the world.” The Charter expressed their commitment to the right of self-government. It reflected their “desire to bring about the fullest collaboration between all nations in the economic field with the object of securing, for all, improved labor standards, economic advancement, and social security.” In this way, the Charter connected self-government, the fight against autocracy, and economic security for working people. In 2021, the United States and United Kingdom signed the New Atlantic Charter, which built on the principles of its 1941 predecessor while “affirm[ing] our ongoing commitment to sustaining our enduring values and defending them against new and old challenges.”

In September, World Trade Organization Director-General Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala recognized the importance of U.S. leadership from the Atlantic Charter to Bretton Woods – including the effort to create the International Trade Organization. That allows us to recall the basis for FDR’s vision – not an exercise in cutting tariffs but an exercise in crafting rules that protect the economic security of working people. At the United Nations General Assembly in September, President Biden stated that the United States will “continue our efforts to reform the World Trade Organization and preserve competition, openness, transparency, and the rule of law while, at the same time, equipping it to better tackle modern-day imperatives, like driving the clean-energy transition, protecting workers, promoting inclusive and sustainable growth.”

As we look toward November and commemorate what our World War I allies call Remembrance Day, we have the opportunity to remember the lessons learned from that war, and the one that followed – that peace, and the preservation of hard-won democratic freedoms, depend on the belief of working people that the system works for them.

Two-and-a-half years into the Biden-Harris Administration, we see clear evidence of what happens when we lift up workers and build the economy from the middle out and the bottom up. More than 14 million jobs created. Unemployment under 4 percent for 21 consecutive months. The highest labor force participation rate in a generation. President Biden’s economic agenda puts American workers and small business owners first, and invests in their success.

Our trade policy is similarly geared towards enforcing our workers’ rights and creating more opportunities for entrepreneurs at home and abroad. There is still more work to do to fully realize this vision for all people, but the signs of progress are unmistakable.