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Plain Talk for a New Generation
The Right Thing

My work this past year has taken me all over the world. In China, in Japan, in Latin America, everywhere I go, people tell me they are using ASTM standards. They want to continue to use ASTM standards, but in their minds is the question of whether or not ASTM standards are politically “acceptable.” People are actually questioning whether or not the standards that make them competitive, the standards that build their infrastructures and keep them safe, the standards they rely on for quality and relevance, the standards of their choice, are politically sanctioned.

How did we get here? How did we get to a place where some people have to choose between what is good for their health and safety, what is good for their place in the world marketplace, and what is politically correct? What’s happened is that somehow, in some places, public policy has gotten ahead of progress. But why would any government deliberately reduce the competitiveness of its own industries? Why would any government barter away its own progress?

Consider the treaty that the United States is negotiating with 33 other countries in this hemisphere: The Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. The intention of the agreement is to build on the World Trade Organization Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement, to identify and eliminate unnecessary technical barriers to hemispheric trade. But at this point in time, the draft agreement document contains language that has gotten ahead of the WTO Agreement. It specifically, by inference and by reference, endorses the use of International Organization for Standardization and International Electrotechnical Commission (ISO/IEC) standards in this hemisphere. By inference, and by omission, it implies that all other international standards are either (1) not credible, or (2) barriers to trade. Neither of these is true, and fortunately, the U.S. Trade Representative knows it. But some of the parties to this agreement evidently do not.

Progress is not something you barter away for political gain. Yet, every time a political decision is made to discourage the free use of standards, that happens. The people around the world I talk to tell me they have real problems with these decisions. What, they say, do we do when a standard we need does not exist in the portfolio designated for us? What do we do when the standards designated for us do not make our products as competitive as those in other countries? What do we do when our competitors beat us to the marketplace with newer technology? What do we do when the standards chosen for us have no relevance to our marketplace, when they take no account of our needs, or our circumstances?

We are not living in the dark ages. We are living in the age of the world marketplace, a marketplace where all nations, especially those that are still developing, finally have a chance, a shot at progress and prosperity. How can any government deny its people that chance? How can any government deny its people that choice? We need to question the decisions that barter away progress. It’s important. It’s imperative. It’s the right thing to do.

James A. Thomas
President, ASTM

Copyright 2002, ASTM

James Thomas, President, ASTM