What part of “trade agreement” do they not understand? The uproar over environmental provisions in the Trans Pacific Partnership proves that U.S. politicians have no understanding that a trade agreement deals only with, ahem, trade issues. If they are to address environmental matters or labor relations or investment policy – or anything else – trade agreements will only address the trade aspects of those issues. Trade agreements are negotiated by trade experts, so it not surprising they tend to focus on trade. They are no substitute for agreements negotiated among experts in the broader topics that the U.S. delegation to TPP is being forced to pursue.
Perhaps this would be more obvious if we didn’t have the prurient interest aroused by the idea that negotiations are “secret” and that the documents have been outed by WikiLeaks (here and here). Of course, they are secret. You can’t negotiate on a public stage. Once you have taken a public stance on something, neither the media nor the politicians will allow a negotiator to pull back from that position (here and here). Which eliminates any possibility of compromise without somebody losing their head in the process.
The present conflict centers on U.S. proposals for dispute settlement and enforcement of environmental and labor relations agreements. As is often the case, the United States wants strong dispute settlement and enforcement – until, of course, some other country has the temerity to launch a dispute against us. Then we frantically look for loopholes. Our press has been full of pronouncements about all the countries that oppose the American approach (seemingly everybody else), but I don’t see anybody in the U.S. media asking just why such opposition is nearly universal. Could it be that other delegations have thought about something that hasn’t occurred to us?
There are numerous possibilities. (1) No country has an absolutely sparkling record of environmental protection or labor rights, so it is easily conceivable that cases could (would) be brought against you. The United States could well find itself on the defensive for environmental violations. (2) If the environmental experts and ministries who negotiated the world’s environment agreements couldn’t agree on their own dispute settlement mechanisms, what makes you think that a system devised by a bunch of trade wonks would be an improvement? (3) Enforcement in trade disputes, should it come to that, generally involves retaliation on an equivalent amount of trade in the other direction, almost always on products that have nothing to do with the actual dispute. Is this how you wish to resolve a difference of opinion on protecting the environment? (4) The United States has proposed that TPP undertake dispute settlement for a defined list of environmental agreements. What would we say if others proposed other agreements to which we are not a party? Kyoto agreement anyone?
The conversation also ignores the fact that the WTO’s dispute settlement mechanism applies to any action, be it called environmental or anything else, that can be construed as a trade measure. Such cases have already been brought, e.g., Mexico’s challenge against U.S. rules on labeling of tuna as dolphin-safe. Unless the TPP’s rules are going to be more stringent than the WTO rules, what’s the point of a new dispute settlement system?
I have argued for years that adding subjects like environmental issues or labor practices to trade agreements just makes it less likely that we will successfully negotiate trade agreements. It’s just too much weight for a trade agreement to carry. As a result, the United States has negotiated fewer trade agreements in the past decade than any other major trading nation. Do you think there could be a connection with the things we are demanding to include in trade talks?