The Trans-Pacific Partnership heads to Congress
Early last month, the Obama Administration concluded negotiations with Pacific Rim leaders over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). If approved by Congress early next year, the regional free trade agreement (FTA) will promote lower tariffs among 11 U.S. trade partners: Australia, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Vietnam, Chile, Brunei, Singapore and New Zealand. Collectively, these countries make up two-fifths of the global economy. Though the deal has been in the works for nearly five years, it is not without its critics.
The White House argues that the TPP levels the playing field for U.S. workers and businesses and upgrades the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). By eliminating 18,000 different tariffsand trade barriers for products such as autos, informational technology and agricultural products, U.S. exports will be more competitive internationally. Optimists argue that this increase in exports will lead to economic growth and more job opportunities in all participating countries. In an op-ed for the Chicago Tribune, President Obama argued that because of this, the TPP is 'a trade deal that helps working families get ahead.'
In spite of this optimism, many think that the culmination of the president's 'pivot to Asia' falls short of all it has promised. In terms of specific policy, critics cite the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanism as one problem. Under the current TPP framework, disputes between businesses and states parties will be adjudicated by neutral organizations such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) or the United Nations (UN). Some fear, however, that bypassing domestic judicial systems in favor of international jurisdiction will allow states parties to challenge U.S. legislation. In response, the Obama Administration has reminded critics that the U.S. has never lost an ISDS case in the past, and that the TPP closes loopholes that exist in other FTAs.
Environmentalists are also concerned that increased free trade under the TPP will lead to damage to forests, oceans, and the atmosphere. National Geographic reports that the language in the treaty is a major problem for environmentalists, who claim that text calling on countries to 'take measures to combat' environmental damage are not strong enough. Yet the Obama Administration argues that the TPP has the most stringent regulations of any recent FTA. The U.S. Trade Representative reportsthat the TPP is the first FTA to restrict harmful subsidies on fisheries. It also combats wildlife trafficking, illegal logging and illegal fishing, while working to conserve endangered marine species. Still, conservationists argue that it is unlikely that any legal action will be taken to sanction such activities.
Aside from these specific complaints, general partisan bickering has also characterized the TPP debate. For instance, during a memorable blunder during Tuesday's Republican debate in Milwaukee, presidential candidate Donald Trump cited Chinese dishonesty as the main reason for his disapproval for the deal. As Kentucky Senator Rand Paul reminded Trump, however, China is not party to the TPP. In reality, as Kentucky Senator John Kasich argued, the deal could allow the United States to create strategic alliances to balance Chinese influence in the Pacific Rim. From the president's own party, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton is skeptical of these claims and argues that the lack of regulation of currency manipulation is a major problem in the final version of the TPP.
Ultimately though, as political scientist Daniel Drezner reminds us, no trade agreement will ever be perfect for every country involved. Such is the nature of multilateral diplomacy. Rather than asking whether the TPP is perfect, Congress must instead ask whether the U.S. will be better off with the TPP than we would be.