Sometimes our representatives in Congress deserve applause. In 2015, members passed major legislation that outlined objectives for U.S. trade policies and agreements and delineated strategies to ensure that trade policymaking (authority shared by both the executive and the legislative branch of government) would have the public's trust. Under Trade Promotion Authority, they set deadlines for presidential and congressional action. But they also required the president to publish the full text of trade agreements and to make public the International Trade Commission's assessment of the agreement's impact upon the U.S. economy.
With these procedures, Americans have an opportunity to hold an enlightened argument about the pros and cons of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement among 12 countries bordering the Pacific that was initialed on Oct. 5.
Trade agreements like TPP are long, boring and complicated. They cover a wide range of issues that at first blush don't look like trade issues. But these agreements are really governance agreements. TPP has 30 chapters, many of which focus on regulatory issues including forced labor, health and safety standards, and how to encourage the free flow of information on the Internet. These agreements have evolved at the behest of Congress. Members noted that many of our trade partners increasingly rely upon regulations and standards to favor domestic producers. They called on the president to develop shared language within trade agreements that could, for example, encourage cleaner air, safer products and stronger workplace protections. As a result, in the last 20 years, U.S. trade agreements have become broader, and some chapters have discrepancies. Not surprisingly, some people will be pleased by the language in TPP, but others will find the agreement inadequate or too burdensome. But they should not come to an opinion without a careful review of what Congress asked for and what the agreement delivered.
Trade agreements like TPP are not only complex and legalistic; they are easy to demagogue and hard to understand. As an example, proponents and opponents have long debated whether such agreements advance human rights. I've spent the last 10 years using human rights and governance data to assess the effects of membership in the World Trade Organization (and other long standing trade agreements) upon specific human rights (using human rights metrics) and upon governance (using public surveys of governance performance). Based on that research, I know that a trade agreement can simultaneously have directly positive effects on some human rights as well as negative effects on other human rights. However, those effects can change over time as a country's wealth, governance capacity and governance evolve. Moreover, membership or participation in a trade agreement can have indirect effects upon human rights and governance. So, we can't ever say a trade agreement is good or bad regarding a specific human right. But by reading agreements such as TPP, we can see policymakers trying to use trade agreements to improve and incentivize human rights practice abroad.
As they review TPP, Americans should assess it from multiple vantage points. After all, we are simultaneously producers, consumers, investors, citizens and taxpayers. TPP will affect us not only as producers or consumers but also as individuals concerned about human rights, the global commons and the cost of drugs among other issues. Hence each of us should weigh the costs and benefits of each chapter and the agreement as a whole to make informed decisions about whether to support or oppose it. We should also assess if the agreement is coherent; if language in one chapter (say labor rights) is contradicted or undermined by language in another chapter (such as investment or regulatory coherence).
In the end, how we conduct the debate over TPP is as important as what we decide to do with it. Many Americans have been understandably concerned that agreements negotiated in secret may not truly reflect the public interest. But TPP will soon be in the public domain. Thanks to Congress, we have enough time to carefully review the agreement. In 1948, Congress and the American people rejected the International Trade Organization because it wasn't good enough. But many members admitted they had not actually read the agreement. Americans should assess TPP with an open mind, recognizing that we need shared norms and strategies to regulate globalization, enhance human welfare, and protect our people and planet from harm.
Susan Ariel Aaronson is Research Professor of International Affairs at George Washington University and the author of six books on international governance topics. Her email is email@example.com.