THE BLOG

Why Are Any U.S. Ports Owned or Operated by Foreign Corporations or Governments?

There are plenty of good, non-jingoist, reasons to oppose the sale of 6 US ports to a corporation controlled by the government of the United Arab Emirates. But the bigger question is: why are US ports and other strategic infrastructure being privatized, particularly to companies owned by foreign governments?

Before the UAE controversy erupted, most Americans probably did not know that many US ports are already owned or run by private corporations, some of which are owned by foreign governments. According to the New York Times, foreign-based companies own and/or manage over 30% of US port terminals. According to Time Magazine, over 80% of the terminals in the Port of Los Angeles are run by foreign-owned companies, including the government of Singapore. In fact, APL Limited, controlled by the Singapore government, operates ports in Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle and Dutch Harbor, Alaska. Chinese government-owned companies control terminals in the Port of Los Angeles and other West Coast ports, as well as both ends of the Panama Canal.

You don't have to be an economic nationalist to think that certain strategic infrastructure should not be owned by foreign companies, particularly those owned by foreign governments. Ports certainly fit into that category. Other examples include airports, railroads, and nuclear power plants. If we're going to sell off strategic facilities to foreign companies and governments, why not sell off the FAA, the Nuclear Regulatory Agency, or the New York City Police? (I'm sure some Saudi or Chinese security personnel know how to crack heads better than New York's finest.)

Senators Clinton and Menendez have announced that they are introducing legislation to prohibit companies owned or controlled by foreign governments from purchasing port operations in the United States. But they should go one step further. Profit-making corporations, foreign or domestic, should not be allowed to own key strategic infrastructure. Corporation's responsibility is to their shareholders, not to the nation. If there's a conflict between security and profits, profits will come first. Strategic infrastructure should be owned and controlled by institutions that put the interests of the American people above profits. This could take the form of government ownership, or more likely ownership by non-profit joint government/private entities.

In the end, the issue comes down to the Bush Administration's ideology of privatizing everything from social security to port ownership.

The Democrats, if they're not too timid, should expand congressional hearings on the UAE deal to include the larger issues of port security and the ownership and control of America's strategic infrastructure. They should make clear that while Bush may sacrifice constitutional liberties in the name of national security, he will sacrifice national security to further the interests of the global business elite.