Among many conservatives, it’s an article of faith that the United States, by virtue of its democratic values and superpower status, should be able to make the rules it lives by. The Kyoto global-warming protocol, the International Criminal Court, the placement of US troops under foreign command — all of these involve giving up some power to multilateral institutions. All have attracted ferocious opposition on the right.
The proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership brings out similar sentiments on the other end of the political spectrum. Even as President Obama seeks fast-track authority to negotiate the trade deal, which would include Japan, Australia, Vietnam, and several other countries, some of his usual political supporters are playing up fears about unaccountable multinational entities.
Granting fast-track authority, the AFL-CIO warns in an ad, could “even allow toxic food to enter US markets unchecked.” In New York on Monday, the City Council took up a resolution declaring the municipality a “TPP-free zone,” in which “the TPP’s regulations will not be respected, to the maximum extent allowed by state and federal law.”
Meanwhile, Senator Elizabeth Warren, whose dispute with Obama over the closed-door negotiations escalated late last week, has previously zeroed in on the arbitration process by which disputes between governments and multinational corporations would be resolved. This system, she wrote in The Washington Post, would tilt the field toward big business. “Worse,” she added, “it would undermine US sovereignty.”
In response, Obama has cast his own position in nationalistic terms, too. “If we don’t write the rules, China will write the rules out in that region,” he declared in an interview Monday with The Wall Street Journal.
The fast-track authority that Obama wants would allow the administration to negotiate a trade deal and bring it to an up-or-down vote in Congress, without amendments. There could, in fact, be substantive reasons to vote against the resulting treaty; one can imagine provisions that do more to enshrine protectionism for favored industries than knock down real barriers to trade. But opponents of fast-track status are intimating that, after years of delicate negotiations among governments, Congress could amend a treaty, and other countries would just go along with it.
Opposing fast-track authority is, of course, a good way to derail all future trade agreements. If that’s what Warren and others want, they should just say so. (Senate leader Harry Reid does.) The message they’re sending now is that America plays by its own rules — and that even when the president signs on the dotted line, the US government may still come back and change the deal later.