SPIEGEL: Mr. Secretary, Russian troops are still in Georgia. NATO just decided to freeze its relationship with Moscow. Should the West limit its economic dealings with Russia as well?
Carlos Gutierrez: Russia is putting itself into a very difficult situation. President Bush has been very clear on this: We have worked with Russia and we have been an advocate for Russia's entry into the world community. We have welcomed them into the group of the leading industrial nations. We welcomed Russia's desire to join the World Trade Organisation. They are putting all that at risk.
SPIEGEL: That means: Russia should be kicked out of the G-8 and should not be allowed to join the WTO?
Gutierrez: We should always keep our options open and not start negotiating with ourselves. The Russians have to reconsider their own interests.
SPIEGEL: What options are you referring to exactly?
Gutierrez: That we stop being an advocate for Russia's entry into the world community. They need to abide to the six-point agreement in Georgia that was signed. And I believe that President Bush acted wisely when he did not rule out any further options. Other nations should follow up.
SPIEGEL: Punitive measures are tricky for Europeans -- perhaps given the dependence of many countries in Europe on Russian oil and gas. How dangerous is this dependence?
Gutierrez: We are all too dependent on oil and gas from countries that dont necessarily share our interests. Americans and Europeans should work together to reduce this dependency. Oil can be used as a political tool.
SPIEGEL: You mean as a political weapon?
Gutierrez: As something to impact our national well-being and our national security.
SPIEGEL: Many talk about energy independence. How to achieve it, though, is much more controversial.
Gutierrez: The president said we have to produce more of our oil. We also should be willing to do what many countries in Europe have done -- using more nuclear power, for instance. We think it is a smart policy not to exclude any national source of energy. We can learn from each other.
SPIEGEL: There are indications, though, that we are entering a new era in which countries focus more on their own national interests. The Doha Round -- which aimed to lower trade barriers and increase global trade -- just failed. Who is to blame?
Gutierrez: I have not given up hope that we can one day achieve a multilateral agreement. And the reason for that is because there is too much to be gained by free trade. Thats one of the really great ideas. You have probably seen the projections for the hundreds of millions of people that could be lifted out of poverty and helped with an agreement. But we couldn't achieve a worldwide consensus at this moment.
Gutierrez: Well, getting 153 WTO member nations to come to an agreement is a challenge. Thats why the US for years has created a trade policy based on bilateral agreement. We should continue to be very aggressive with these bilateral free trade agreements. We have done it already with Mexico, Canada und countries in Latin America. It has been good for our exports.
SPIEGEL: But not necessarily for American jobs. There is a heated debate in the US on the benefits of free trade. Workers in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Illinois -- once the industrial heartland of the country -- see themselves as being the losers of free trade policies.
Gutierrez: If there is an individual that has been impacted by trade and lost his job, there is nothing I can tell him that would justify what happened. The problem is that too often people use trade as an excuse. And in the world of sound bites and quick statements, that is what people hear. They blame free trade but it is technical progress thats responsible.
SPIEGEL: Millions of Americans want trade that isn't just free, but is also fair.
Gutierrez: I agree in fair and free trade -- as long as the word "fair" is not a code word for isolationism.
SPIEGEL: In the US, a number of politicians have suggested that they would like to renegotiate NAFTA -- the free trade agreement between Mexico, Canada and the US.
Gutierrez: I find it, frankly, almost embarrassing that the $14 trillion dollar economy wants to renegotiate with the $800 million dollar economy.
SPIEGEL: Would you go so far as to say that free trade in the US is at risk if a Democrat gets elected in November?
Gutierrez: I would say that if we were to adopt isolationist policies, that would be a big mistake.
SPIEGEL: Aren't you concerned at all about the enormous trade deficit in the US? America was once the biggest exporter in the world, but now, the country is the biggest importer in the world.
Gutierrez: There are also other more significant numbers to show if an economy is succeeding: the growth rate, the unemployment rate, or inflation. We could tackle the trade deficit pretty aggressively if we wanted to, but the question is, what would it do to those three numbers? There are countries in Europe that have trade surpluses, but their unemployment rate is much higher and their growth rate has not been as fast as in our country.
SPIEGEL: Are you talking about export-success-story Germany?
Gutierrez: I just want to say in general: There are countries in Europe with a trade surplus but a growth rate of 1.5 percent compared with our 2.5 to 3.0 percent growth over the past six years. Their unemployment rate is not 5.7 percent as in the US, but rather 8 percent.
SPIEGEL: Early last year, Chancellor Angela Merkel promoted a trans-Atlantic free trade pact with the US. Initially, President Bush seemed supportive of the idea, but not much has happened since.
Gutierrez: We had one or two meetings. That is obviously not enough, but we are getting started. These are issues that require consistency and patience and it is going to require a lot of work. We need to be closer together and with our eyes open in terms of what is happening in the world economy. We should take a stand on the importance and the value of intellectual property -- in defense against those abusing our brands and licenses.
SPIEGEL: Are you referring to China?
Gutierrez: Our brands or patents or trademarks are very important for our economies. Americans and Europeans need to collaborate on this shared interest. Is a BMW produced in South Carolina more of an American car than a Ford produced in Germany? There is a lot of shared interest in intellectual property on both sides of the Atlantic.
SPIEGEL: Maybe the global economy is less of a problem than the state of "Corporate America." Prior to becoming Secretary of Commers, you served as CEO of Kellogg's. Given the current crisis, what are your thoughts about corporate management these days?
'Shocking Examples of Wrongdoing'
Gutierrez: I think there are many different US companies, not one "Corporate America." The owners of the company hire a CEO and the job is to make sure that the owners receive a return on their investment. In order to do that, the CEO has to take care of his employees, he has to take care of his customers. That's how the system works.
SPIEGEL: In theory.
Gutierrez: The theory works, yes.
SPIEGEL: But the US car industry, to name an example, is in dramatic decline. The CEO of General Motors is responsible for losses of more than $50 billion. But has just been confirmed by the board of directors. Again, what's wrong with "Corporate America?"
Gutierrez: I think you need to look at every company individually.
SPIEGEL: But why are CEOs currently so unpopular in the US? Is it a result of corporate greed, the lack of social responsibility on their part -- or both?
Gutierrez: Of course, there have been some shocking examples of wrongdoing. The Enron-scandal was very, very unfortunate. And if I were an employee of Enron, I would be very angry with the people at the top. But how can you be in favor of jobs and be against business?
SPIEGEL: In some areas, though, even business leaders are calling for government intervention -- on healthcare, for instance. Many Americans only have health insurance as long as they are employed. That is not just dangerous, but is also extremely expensive for American companies. Why not introduce universal healthcare in the US?
Gutierrez: I believe in free markets, but the government has a role to play in healthcare. So now, tax breaks are given to corporations to give healthcare to employees. But only to corporations, not to individuals. So they receive their healthcare from their company through insurance but they never get to see a bill. They don't even know how much they pay for an X-ray and whether that could be done cheaper or more efficiently. There is simply not enough competition.
SPIEGEL: What about environmental policy in times of exploding oil prices? Should it be left to market forces to solve the problem, or should the government intervene?
Gutierrez: Government needs to play a role in that. But we have to be careful. We know global climate change is a global phenomenon. If we were to do some very aggressive unilateral regulations that all of a sudden make it easier to build a plant in China than to build a plant in the US, then we lose more jobs.
SPIEGEL: Recently, you hit the campaign trail for the Republican presidential candidate John McCain. That is rather unusual for a sitting US Secretary of Commerce.
Gutierrez: I did some work as a citizen. In this office, I am here as a Secretary of Commerce. I can tell you that I believe in economic policies that make taxes lower, that make the creation of small businesses easier. Seventy percent of the jobs in the US are small businesses, not the big multinational corporations that everybody knows.
SPIEGEL: In his campaign, McCain has started to focus on the classic Republican issue of lower taxes. Is he correct in doing so?
Gutierrez: Like many others, I believe that we have to make our taxes even lower to be more competitive in a world where Spain or other European countries are also taking taxes down.
SPIEGEL: Is that feasible? The US is already struggling with a huge budget deficit and an eroding infrastructure. Many streets, schools, bridges are in a terrible condition.
Gutierrez: Our tax revenue today is about 18.6 percent of GDP, and the average historic rate is 18.3 percent. That does not tell me that we are not collecting enough taxes. What it does tell me is that we are probably spending too much, and spending on things that are not generating returns.
SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, many Americans are deeply frustrated with the current economic situation. Will that frustration decide the election in November?
Gutierrez: I know that people are very concerned about the economy. But even though there is concern about globalization, I think there is equal concern about isolationism. I also believe that Americans do not forget what happened on 9/11 very easily, and the national security is still extremely important.
SPIEGEL: From your experience as a CEO and in government, what requirements should a presidential candidate fulfil?
Gutierrez: When I hired someone, I always paid a lot of attention to two things: One is references. And the other one is, tell me what you have done. Show me your resume.
SPIEGEL: You were the youngest CEO in the history of Kellogg's. Isn't an infusion of fresh blood as important as experience?
Gutierrez: I tell you: The best indicator of what someone will do is what they have done -- not so much what they tell you.
Interview conducted by Gregor Peter Schmitz and Gabor Steingart