TRADE agreements among nations have existed as long as the concepts of “nation,” “trade,” and “conversation” have, and they have probably been bitterly opposed by the advocates of “labor” for nearly the same length of time.
One can imagine—or at least I can, because I have an odd imagination—the chiefs of neighboring islands happily making a deal at some point in the distant past to exchange coconuts for pretty seashells, only to have the whole bargain dashed by some hysterical jackass loudly complaining that it would eliminate some jobs and reduce wages for the local pretty seashell collecting industry.
Washington Post writer Dana Milbank flirted with taking on the role of the hysterical jackass over the weekend with a column condemning US efforts to push the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade negotiations over the final few hurdles between them and a successful conclusion.
Milbank wrote: “The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is an abomination—not because of the deal itself, and not because free trade in general is a bad idea. The TPP is an abomination because Obama had a chance to protect American workers from the harm that would inevitably come from such a pact, and he didn’t take it, or at least he hasn’t.”
An abomination? Really? Milbank goes on to explain that US President Obama and his designated successor, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, should support the TPP, “but only after congressional Republicans do what’s needed to protect low-wage American workers from the dislocation that will occur,” specifically through approving more spending for worker skills training and infrastructure.
In the context of early 21st-century American politics, expecting Republicans to do anything is about as useful as wishing pigs could fly: It probably won’t happen, and if it does, it probably won’t be very helpful. Milbank’s specific political opinion is not the point; rather, it is the archetypical way in which he uses it to smother any practical discussion of trade agreements. The topic is the TPP, but Milbank uses it as a mere pretext to make arguments in favor of the aforementioned increases in job training and infrastructure spending.
Those things are certainly worthwhile issues, but while they are not completely unrelated to trade arrangements, the relationships are far more complex and indirect than pundits would have us believe. The public debate is, thus, oversimplified, and that in turn muddles actual negotiations on trade agreements. As a consequence, most agreements, when they are finally ratified years behind schedule if at all, are so hopelessly watered down by politically driven conditions that they return very little change to the status quo for the amount of effort invested in them.
Repeated attempts to “get it right” are mainly the reason why ideas like the TPP, APEC, and closer to home, the Asean Free Trade Agreement (AFTA) even exist. Once upon a time, policymakers envisioned a grand, worldwide, everyone-on-the-same-page trade framework and created the World Trade Organization (WTO). The WTO did contribute to the evolution of global trade by imposing some standards, but the vast number of exceptions that had to be included in order to convince countries to accept it minimized any positive impact; the alphabet soup of sub-global trade initiatives—TPP, AFTA, and dozens of others—that have been launched since are all, in effect, efforts to come up with a better alternative to the WTO or similar idea.
The Philippines under President BS Aquino 3rd has been desperate to join the TPP—the country must be invited by the other countries already taking part in negotiations—but may be better off remaining on the sidelines until the US Congress decides “what’s needed.” Even though the TPP started out as a discussion between Singapore and Chile, the US has assumed the leadership role in it; if Congress fails to ratify it (maybe) or further waters down the agreement with additional conditions to ‘protect American jobs,’ the value proposition for the Philippines will significantly decrease. With so much on the Administration’s plate at the moment—trying to keep a last tenuous grasp on its largely imaginary claims in the South China Sea, grappling with domestic political crises, and trying to establish a presence in APEC and Asean initiatives—signing on to another complicated project is completely beyond its reach.
Multi-lateral trade pacts are not abominable by any means, and even work well in rare cases—the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the US, Mexico, and Canada has, despite initial fears, largely been good for all three countries. As Milbank notes, the general idea of a trade agreement is not bad, but is often flawed in detail. Exactly how it is flawed, however, is often something that is not easily discovered because of the highly charged political atmosphere surrounding it. Which makes your average multi-lateral trade agreement not abominable – that’s a bit melodramatic, after all—but probably not worth the trouble, either.