I must confess that two or three times during FORGE’s 2015 editorial year I started writing this column about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The problem in so doing was that each time I started researching the topic I learned less and less about the actual terms of the agreement and more and more about the opacity of the process and negotiations from which it was derived.
As most of you know, the TPP is a trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations reached on Oct. 5, 2015, about matters of common economic interest among the negotiating countries. The 11 countries besides the U.S. include Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. It took seven years to hammer out a document that was cloaked in secrecy as it was being negotiated.
At this writing in January, however, at least some of the opacity has been cleared up, and President Obama urged Congress to act favorably on the TPP in his State of the Union Address. For those interested, the text of the partnership agreement is now available on the site of the U.S. Trade Representative at https://ustr.gov/tpp.
According to the U.S. Trade Representative (Michael Froman), the TPP agreement includes the following features:
- It will reduce or eliminate tariff and non-tariff trade barriers for virtually all goods and services so as to create new opportunities and promote products made in America and open markets for them.
- It will facilitate seamless trade among participating countries and will level the playing field for American workers and businesses by building strong and enforceable labor standards. It will create jobs and raise living standards.
- It will promote strong environmental protection, which is a core American value. Through the TPP, the U.S. is negotiating for robust environmental standards and commitments from member countries.
- Small businesses are the backbone of the U.S. economy and have accounted for nearly two-thirds of new private-sector jobs in recent decades. The TPP will improve transparency and regulations to help U.S. companies engage in and benefit from increased trade in the Asia Pacific.
This is, of course, a vast oversimplification of the terms of the TPP document. But the devil, as they say, is in the details. If you read the text of the agreement it all sounds like pretty good stuff, but I have come to distrust the encouraging economic rhetoric that characterizes these trade agreements.
The truth is, we already enjoy significant trade relationships with a number of the advanced economies on the list of participating countries. Whether the economies are advanced or not, they are all smaller than that of the U.S., and I can’t help but feel that trade agreements tend to favor the smaller economies rather than help the big ones.
It isn’t that our negotiators didn’t do a good job representing U.S. interests while hammering out the terms of the agreement. You can decide that for yourselves.
But I am distrustful of a process that was so shrouded in secrecy that it remained a mystery until a few short months ago. And if some renegade country decides not to live up to the terms of the agreement in the future, how exactly are we to enforce it?