After World War II, the United States expanded its economic and political ties to foreign nations in order to secure a vital role for capitalism in the radically altered international climate of the Cold War. As nations like Japan arose as manufacturing competitors in the late twentieth century, American corporations began to look abroad for cheaper labor and materials in order to stay competitive at home. Economic theorists propounded a free trade theory that would undo tariffs and other barriers to competition and exchange with foreign nations. Throughout the postwar period, free trade enjoyed a rare amount of bipartisan support among American leaders. When Democrat Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, free trade was one of the few positions he held in common with his Republican predecessor, George H.W. Bush. Despite the vehement opposition of many other Democrats, American unions (concerned about job outsourcing), and environmental groups (worried about lax governmental standards with increased trade), Clinton pushed hard and received congressional approval for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The agreement created a free-trade zone spanning Canada, the United States, and Mexico. After NAFTA went into effect in 1994, Mexico became the largest exporter of apparel to the U.S. market.
The benefits and advantages of free trade have produced mixed results on both sides. There were clear advantages for the impoverished manufacturing sector in Mexico, which could compete more effectively after NAFTA by shipping goods duty-free into the U.S.158 This lowered prices for text from the module American consumers but further undercut the already ailing domestic manufacturing industry and its millions of American workers. American manufacturers could also keep wages at home low by threatening to move just across the border, where workers were cheaper and both safety and environmental regulations were considerably weaker. Real wages in Mexico also declined after the implementation of NAFTA, although the country's employment levels have gone up.159 Free trade may hurt American workers, but it is a boon to American consumers, who—according to at least one Los Angeles Times reporter—"buy more clothing than any people in history," and can now "get a shirt for $20 instead of $25."160
In American politics, free trade has not been a clear-cut partisan issue; President Clinton signed NAFTA into law, but some critics from his own Democratic Party, such as recent presidential aspirant John Edwards, have come out critical of it. Edwards argues that most Americans have found the benefit of cheap goods actually pales in comparison to the detriment of stagnating wages in the United States. He does not advocate NAFTA's elimination but rather a serious revision of the trade agreement, one that would include more protections for workers and the environment. On the other hand, liberals like Robert Reich, President Clinton's labor secretary, argue that "trade is good for the U.S. but...some people are burdened by it far more than others. We've got to make them all winners, but you don't make them winners by attacking trade."161 Domestic manufacturers, in the meantime, continue to press for certain protectionist measures against foreign countries, as a means of ensuring or at least prolonging their own survival.
American textile makers have also pressured the federal government to negotiate with China in order to restrain the growth of that nation's textile and apparel industry. In 1999, American trade negotiators tried to convince China to rein in its massive export business as part of a final deal to get China into the global trade group known as the World Trade Organization (WTO). China has been able to outperform U.S. manufacturers because it pays its workers considerably less. But recently American manufacturers, formerly united in favor of protectionist tariffs to bolster domestic industries, have begun to splinter in the face of the trade dilemmas of globalization. While American textile manufacturers invested in modernizing their factories from the 1970s onward—enabling them to keep production in the United States—apparel manufacturers took a different path, turning instead to cheap foreign labor to cut and assemble textiles into items such as shirts, shoes, and dresses. Reflecting this split, American apparel manufacturers broke from the textile industry in 1999 and supported China's bid to join the WTO, so that China could operate without quotas on the number of apparel and textile items that it would be allowed to export. Many of these apparel manufacturers simply say that since the 1980s, they have realized the "futility" of trying to pass textile quota legislation in the face of inevitable globalization.
Textile producers, on the other hand, retained substantial governmental influence in the United States, since they were concentrated in the politically powerful South and retained important ties to labor unions.162 China did gain entry to the WTO in September 2001, enabling it to flood the U.S. market with low-cost goods, but also dramatically reducing import barriers for American companies looking to ship their products into the most populous nation on earth. While Chinese imports remain a powerful presence in the U.S. economy, the Committee for the Implementation of Textile Agreements (CITA) did manage to impose some trade barriers on a variety of Chinese goods, from shirts to man-made fiber underwear, in 2005. (CITA was initially created by Richard Nixon during his 1972 re-election campaign, at a time when textile manufacturers were first coming under threat from Japanese and Taiwanese competition.)163 In light of the more recent threat that China poses, the U.S. negotiated with China to allow "safeguard" trade barriers in the event of an import "surge"; these barriers will expire for textile imports in 2008.164
Interestingly, all of these post-Cold-War trade issues have emerged between the United States—a capitalist superpower—and China, a nominally communist government with a rapidly modernizing and industrializing infrastructure. In the half century that followed World War II, the Chinese people endured decades of austerity, while Americans splurged on the greatest consumer spending binge in the history of the world, amassing unprecedented quantities of consumer goods—including, and especially, clothing. Yet for all the affluence of the United States, its increasingly unequal distribution of wealth since 1970 has left working- and middle-class families searching desperately for bargains to sustain their appetite for commodities while satisfying their budgetary restrictions.165 And so the delicate trade dance will continue, so long as there are bargain-hungry shoppers, foreign manufacturers with cheap labor, environmentalists protesting loose standards, nervous American factories and employees, and politicians from both sides of the aisle clamoring to solve the trade crises.