Avaaz, a member-based NGO that describes itself as a “global web movement to bring people-powered politics to decision-making everywhere,” is taking aim at the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). According to Avaaz, the TPP is a “top-secret, global corporate power grab of breathtaking scope,” that will result in “a giant global pact, with an international tribunal to enforce it” that will be “brought down like a Death Star on our democracies.” And there are only two days left to stop it.
But the rhetoric is just a tad over the top. The TPP is the moniker for regional trade negotiations between the United States and a number of other countries that are taking place this week outside Washington. To be clear, I am no fan of the proliferation of bilateral and regional trade negotiations, as I wrote here nearly a decade ago. Such agreements risk undermining the multilateral, rules-based trade system, which is the best protection that small and poor countries have against trade bullies. And I share Avaaz’s concern about certain elements of the US free trade agreement (FTA) model, including the overly strict provisions protecting intellectual property rights and limiting the use of capital controls. And US negotiators did waiver in the face of industry objections to provisions that would reinforce the right of parties to regulate tobacco use.
But death star? Really? The talks this week are among 9 countries, soon to be 11 when Mexico and Canada join later this year. In addition to those two and the United States, the other participants are Australia, Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, Malaysia, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam—not exactly global. And most of these countries already have trade agreements with one another; the United States has them with all but Brunei, New Zealand, Malaysia, and Vietnam. Any TPP agreement is likely to look quite a bit like those earlier agreements in key respects. And while the provisions on intellectual property, capital controls, and investor rights still concern me, the TPP involves several countries, not just one, and several of them are relatively rich, so American negotiators do not have the same degree leverage as in the asymmetric bargaining situation I wrote about earlier. That is one reason that the talks taking place in Leesburg, Virginia, this week are the 14th round of negotiations that have been going on for 30 months and that no one expects to conclude before the end of 2013 at best. Unlike Avaaz’s breathless rhetoric, there is a bit more than two days for concerned citizens to weigh in and make their voices heard.
In sum, any expansion of the scope of trade rules as a result of a TPP agreement—either geographically or substantively—is likely to be marginal rather than breathtaking. But the biggest reason that I can’t get riled up about the TPP talks? I think the odds that an agreement is actually reached are no better than 50-50.