UNITED NATIONS — Saying poverty breeds terrorism and despair, President Bush challenged world leaders on Wednesday to abolish all trade tariffs and subsidies — worth hundreds of billions of dollars — to promote prosperity and opportunity in struggling nations.
"Either hope will spread, or violence will spread, and we must take the side of hope," Bush told more than 160 presidents, prime ministers and kings gathered for three days of U.N. General Assembly meetings aimed at combating poverty and reforming the world body.
Wary of competition and eager to protect their own markets, nations across the globe have responded suspiciously in countless rounds of negotiations to remove trade barriers. Under global trading rules, the United States, Europe and Japan alone are allowed $138 billion in agricultural subsidies, and powerful interests in each country are reluctant to drop measures that protect their markets. Congress would have to approve any trade-elimination agreement.
A kinder approach from Bush
Bush's compassionate approach was a change in tone from earlier appearances at the U.N. where he chided world leaders for their reluctance to fight in Iraq and was criticized for what was perceived as a go-it-alone approach that ignored the views of other countries. This time Bush stood before the U.N. with the lowest approval ratings of his presidency at a time when his administration is seen as vulnerable for its poor handling of Hurricane Katrina.
He opened his remarks by thanking the more than 115 countries and nearly a dozen international agencies that have offered disaster assistance. "We have witnessed the awesome power of nature and the greater power of human compassion," the president said.
On a day when violence killed at least 160 people and wounded hundreds more in Baghdad, Bush met with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, his chief ally in the Iraq war. In between U.N. meetings, the president also conferred with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Bush called on Arab nations to help develop a Palestinian economy. "Now is the time for people to step up," Bush said.
For the first time, Bush took the U.S. seat at the 15-nation Security Council as it unanimously passed resolutions to outlaw the incitement of terrorism, counter violent extremist ideologies and increase efforts to prevent armed conflict, especially in Africa.
"We have a solemn obligation to stop terrorism at its early stages," Bush said, sitting at the horseshoe-shaped table.
Call for a global free trade zone
Bush's call to eliminate all trade barriers would essentially create a worldwide free trade zone, something that goes far beyond the goals of the 148 countries who are seeking to wrap up a new round of trade liberalization talks known as the Doha Round, for the city in Qatar where the talks were launched in late 2001.
Those discussions, which have a more limited agenda of simply reducing current trade barriers, are currently stalled. Officials are worried that an upcoming December meeting in Hong Kong could fail to make progress in such key areas as reducing barriers that rich countries have erected to protect their farmers. Poor nations see a reduction in farm subsidies as key to making their farm goods competitive on global markets.
Saying that the Doha negotiations would eliminate farm subsidies, Bush said, "Today I broaden the challenge by making this pledge: The United States is ready to eliminate all tariffs, subsidies and other barriers to free flow of goods and services as other nations do the same. This is key to overcoming poverty in the world's poorest nations. It's essential we promote prosperity and opportunity for all nations."
The president also asked nations to follow his lead and sign a Russian-sponsored treaty that would require the prosecution and extradition of anyone seeking radioactive materials or nuclear devices.
"We must send a clear message to the rulers of outlaw regimes that sponsor terror and pursue weapons of mass murder: You will not be allowed to threaten the peace and stability of the world," Bush said.
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