I’m trying to decide which is the more interesting question: why Foreign Affairs, organ of the foreign policy establishment, decided to publish U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman’s brief for the new trade deals President Obama supports, or why Froman decided to write and market the article in the first place.
Little could be clearer by now than the president’s growing detachment from either the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) or the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) or the fast track legislation that’s crucial to its passage by Congress – unless it’s the opposition to the Pacific and Europe-focused agreements that’s emerged in many of the other prospective signatories.
And although Froman’s piece ostensibly focused on “The Strategic Logic of Trade” – raising the prospect that, once again, Washington is about to throw American workers and domestic producers under the bus in order to make nice with free-riding allies – he quickly retreated back to the (currently) standard argument that new trade deals “first and foremost” have to stand on their economic merits.
Still, it’s pretty revealing that, although Froman did proceed to try linking the strategic case for these agreements to U.S. interests in some of the world’s leading crises, he wound up showing how flimsy the connections really are.
Take Froman’s claim that “Over time, the habits of cooperation shaped through trade can reduce misperceptions, build trust, and increase cooperation between states on other issues — creating ‘an atmosphere congenial to the preservation of peace,’ as U.S. President Harry Truman put it in 1947….”
Do the “recent developments in Asia and Europe” mentioned by Froman in the very next paragraph even come close to bearing this out? East Asia, for example, is the world’s champion trading region, and the offshoring of U.S., European, and Japanese corporate supply chains means that trade within its bounds has exploded along with its trade with other regions. Yet despite the superabundance of trade, misperceptions among China, Vietnam, Korea, Japan, and others seem to be on the rise. Mounting geopolitical tensions have even spilled over into economic relations – notably between Japan and China, and between Vietnam and China.
It’s true that open conflict has so far been avoided, and a fear of rocking an economic boat that’s so far been prosperity-enhancing has undeniably played a major role. But it’s even likelier that the military presence of the United States and the alliance system it undergirds has been the truly decisive peacekeeper so far.
Stranger still is the article’s argument that “finalizing the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP) would send an unmistakable signal to the world about the strength of the U.S.-European bond — a timely reminder, as the crisis in Ukraine has triggered deep unease across the continent.”
I can’t speak with much confidence about how “the world” would interpret the TTIP strategically. I do feel confident in stating that the force threatening Europe’s “ease” – Russia’s Vladimir Putin – is paying much more attention to how the United States and its allies respond to his ever bolder provocations near NATO airspace, and whether they’ll impose stronger sanctions on the Russian economy, than to whether Washington and Brussels can expand their aleady enormous and generally successful trading and investment arrangements.
A Republican party generally favoring these trade deals looks likely to win the Senate in tomorrow’s midterm elections, and boost Mr. Obama’s chances of winning Congressional approval if they’re ever finalized. Perhaps this prospect convinced either Froman or Foreign Affairs or both that a seemingly weighty journal article could provide lawmakers with valuable political cover.
But with the White House admitting that not even a summit with Asian leaders later this month seems capable of creating new TPP momentum, the odds of the new treaties, and the crucial fast track legislation, coming before Congress before mid-2015 look slim. And the further into next year a Congressional trade debate is postponed, the closer these unpopular initiatives approach the next presidential cycle – that all-too-brief quadrennial stretch when even the most dedicated trade cheerleader has to take public opinion seriously.