Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty, speaking at the Little Rock Rotary Club on Tuesday, stressed the importance of globalization, noting that Americans are "living in a much more interconnected world than ever before."
KATV-TV, Channel 7, anchor Chris May interviewed the onetime White House chief of staff for President Bill Clinton at the club's weekly meeting at the Clinton Presidential Library. During the conversation, McLarty touched on trade tension with China, the North American Free Trade Agreement, Russia and more.
"The reality is we're interconnected, so there's no way we could sensibly cut ourselves off from the rest of the world," McLarty said. "We would be foolish to do that, in my judgment. And I do think, in terms of trade, when goods move, soldiers don't ... The bookends are, to be strong abroad, we've got to be strong at home. To remain strong at home, we've got to remain engaged abroad."
Much of that engagement now centers on trade, as the Trump administration seeks tariffs on Chinese steel and a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Clinton signed in 1993.
"I hope we're able to avoid a trade war," McLarty said, on the subject of back-and-forth tariffs between the U.S. and China. "That would not be good for Arkansas. It would not be good for our country."
But he said some of Trump's instincts to renew certain trade deals are correct.
"I think the president's instincts, and former presidents and all of us in business, I think, have felt that there wasn't quite the parity with China and other countries," McLarty said. "So I think that part of trying to reset some of these trade agreements — including the North American Free Trade Agreement, which is now 25 years old — I think that instinct, inclination is right.
"But how we go about doing that is yet another story because we could have a win-win here, or we could have a win-lose, and we don't want that to occur if we can avoid it," he said. "The bottom line is we'll have to wait and see ... They have a lot at stake, and we do too."
On NAFTA, McLarty pointed out that that more than $1 trillion in trade occurs among the U.S., Canada and Mexico, and that it's "much better to get along with your neighbors than not." Having been part of some NAFTA negotiations, McLarty also joked that hindsight is a great substitute for wisdom.
McLarty said NAFTA created a bond among the three countries that is important from a trade, economic and security standpoint. But he noted that internet and e-commerce didn't exist when the agreement was signed. So NAFTA should be updated, and the U.S. must figure a way to make globalization and advancing technology work, he said.
Speaking on Russia, McLarty recalled that the Clinton administration was fortunate to have a working relationship with then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin.
McLarty said Russian President Vladimir Putin has consolidated his power and is "looking for dignity in all wrong places," while the country has become more nationalistic and insecure about its position in the world.
McLarty said the U.S. is stuck, for the foreseeable future, with an inability to hit the reset button on its relationship with Russia, though presidents and other politicians haven't been able to achieve that in the past 25 years either.
McLarty said a strong NATO is the best way to meet the Russian threat but that the U.S. should not discount common interests, like achieving peace in Syria.