Originally published by The Examiner on December 28, 2007.

“Three centuries ago Thomas Hobbes proclaimed life ‘nasty, brutish and short.’ Today, we have Lou Dobbs presenting life as unfair, isolationist and doomed. For people who subscribe to this view, all the ills of protectionism can be cured with more protectionism” said U.S. Trade Representative Susan C. Schwab at an event held by the Independent Women’s Forum.

Surveying the challenges the U.S. faces in our increasingly global economy, Ambassador Schwab offered a simple, persuasive prescription: We must “engage and not retreat.” We must “seize opportunities to open markets to U.S. goods and services as we stay open to the products of other countries.”

Americans always have been a trading people. The early colonists vigorously resisted British import duties. The United States has long led the world in promoting free trade, and U.S. products and services (many of which are provided by women-owned and operated businesses) now dominate the globe. Unfortunately, the bipartisan consensus in favor of an open international economy is breaking down.

Despite fears of lost jobs due to globalization, America employs 16.5 million more people today than a decade ago. Europe has barely treaded water while America has sped ahead.

True, the U.S. has fewer manufacturing jobs – because these industries are more productive and produce more with less. While 3.3 million manufacturing jobs have disappeared over the last 10 years, our nation has enjoyed a net gain of 11.6 million jobs in higher-wage industries. Dan Griswold of the Cato Institute reports that real compensation for American workers is up 22 percent since 1997.

Although the U.S. is the world’s economic powerhouse, 96 percent of the world’s consumers live outside our borders. Selling to them creates at least 12 million jobs in America today. As they grow wealthier, these billions will have even more money to spend on U.S. goods and services.

An open economy is particularly important for women, who continue to increase their role as business executives and entrepreneurs. A policy of free trade spreads that openness to other lands. Because of numerous bilateral free trade pacts and decades of increasing liberalization abroad, American women enjoy far greater economic opportunities today than even a few years ago.

Yet all of these advantages are at risk today. Interest groups and politicians are undermining America’s traditional free trade agenda, treating the international economy as a threat.

First, multilateral negotiations, termed the “Doha round,” have stalled over issues such as farm subsidies. Although Europe is the biggest stumbling block, the U.S., too, has sacrificed the interests of consumers to maintain outmoded farm export subsidies. An increasing number of Republicans embrace a protectionist agenda, while the new Democratic majority is even more hostile to free trade. While Congress passed the Peru Trade Promotion Agreement, it has failed to renew the president’s “fast-track” authority to negotiate free trade agreements (FTAs), with Congress providing an up or down vote to approve any deal.

Previously negotiated FTAs with Columbia, Panama and South Korea remain stalled on Capitol Hill. All of these agreements offer the U.S. political as well as economic benefits.

American economic predominance cannot be taken for granted. U.S. economic success is threatened not only by a turn away from economic engagement, but also by legislators who are failing to push the domestic reforms necessary to maintain America’s competitive advantage abroad.

Corporate taxes are too high. Burdensome federal regulations plague U.S. companies. The public schools fail to prepare many students for a career in a high-tech, global economy. Our health and retirement systems are a costly mess.

America’s women need what America needs, an administration and Congress committed to working together to ensure that the U.S. remains second to none economically. Free trade must again be a priority. Congress should reauthorize presidential fast-track authority and ratify the three pending FTAs. Then, the president should negotiate FTAs with other interested nations.

The administration should attempt to restart the Doha negotiations by exhibiting greater flexibility in reforming our agriculture policy. Washington also should accelerate discussions with Europe over economic harmonization. The global community will benefit from removing unnecessary barriers to trade and investment.

Finally, Congress and the president should pursue a concerted policy to further free up the U.S. economy, including lower capital gains and corporate taxes that match economic competitors, and more sophisticated, less costly regulation.

America became a global leader by embracing economic liberty at home and abroad. The American public would be wise to remember that legacy when voting next year.

Michelle D. Bernard is the president and CEO of the Independent Women’s Forum and author of “Women’s Progress: How Women and Are Wealthier, Healthier and More Independent Than Ever Before”