What Does “Free Trade” Really Mean for Us?

John Kerry and Ashton Carter. Pool photo by Mark Wilson

“Free trade” could bear no more ironic moniker, no matter how many times President Obama claims that new treaties
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will be good for America and that “nothing is secret.” Trade deals are easy to dismiss as obscure or bureaucratic, but the
trickle-down effects, as past trade deals should have taught us by now, will be visceral. The TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership–not to mention the impending TTIP, Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) threatens our entire democracy, but multinational companies and corporatist politicians stand to gain from everything we lose–droves of US jobs, labor rights, banking regulations, environmental protections, internet freedom, affordable pharmaceuticals, food safety inspections, and the semblance of control over our political system.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration is vociferously promoting these deals, and may yet get their wish to see them fulfilled. On June 24th, Congress approved Fast Track (or TPA, Trade Promotion Authority) by a narrow margin, and President Obama signed it into law on June 29th. This means that when the TPP is finally presented to Congress, it will have to take it or leave it — it will have to vote it up or down without amendment.  The TAA, Trade Adjustment Assistance, which was meant to help workers who would be impacted by the TPP and previous trade deals–and funding that aid by cutting Medicare, was also passed.

Nearly all Democrats voted against the trade bills, but Obama and the Republicans continue pushing the issue. On June 8th, Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter published an article in USA Today, twisting the script to attempt to portray the TPP in a favorable light it does not deserve.

To begin with, Kerry and Carter claim that the “TPP is an indispensable tool for one of the most important projects of our time. Since World War II, U.S. leadership of the global trading system has helped usher in an era of peace and prosperity unparalleled in history. It has brought jobs to our shores, partners to our defense and peace and prosperity to those around the world who have embraced openness, fairness and freedom.” While there is no doubt that expanding US influence around the world has been one of this country’s “most important projects,” the fact that the TPP is a tool to further that cause is less than comforting. US leadership of just about anything has not “usher[ed] in an era of peace and prosperity” in any way visible to most inhabitants of the world.

Rather, since World War II, US leadership of the global trading system has helped entrench neoliberalism, promoted the fallacy that the Cold War was “won” with the triumph of capitalism, further stratified the world in terms of the one percent and all the rest, ensured corporate control of industries, livelihoods, and governments, and accelerated a race to the bottom in terms of health, safety, and environmental and working conditions. The peace and prosperity that Kerry and Carter claim responsibility for? Not so apparent.

Additionally, trade deals have historically sucked jobs from our shores, as lifting trade barriers has consistently led to waves of outsourcing as employers depart for the countries with the cheapest labor. Kerry and Carter did add a qualifier for the “peace and prosperity” they assure us we’ve been seeing, that–it has been delivered only “to those around the world who have embraced openness, fairness and freedom.” Presumably then, the countries whom we have brought to our side–or forcibly restructured to our liking–have been rewarded with peace and prosperity, though that still seems elusive. Capitalism we have certainly delivered, and all the trappings of neoliberalism, but peace and prosperity are not quite what those seem to accomplish. Rising unemployment and falling wages are the more customary accompaniments when a country has had its trading system pried open and convinced to “embrace openness, fairness, and freedom.” Perhaps the “openness” discussed here is not the same kind referenced in discussions of that other “openness” phenomenon, “transparency.”

Kerry and Carter also seem to be laboring under the delusion that continued US leadership in the Asia-Pacific region is what the inhabitants of those countries want (or perhaps what we have judged that they need). However, US presence there ought not to be looked on as quite so rosy. Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, and the Philippines, at least, should recall well the consequences of excessive US presence in their region. Perhaps a good, novel idea could be allowing the people whose region it is to exercise the leadership of said region. Our trade ambassador-cheerleaders assure us that “in meeting after meeting across the region, we hear calls about the importance of TPP and the desire for more U.S. engagement,” but remember that the meetings they were conducting were with government echelons, not the people in the countries from whom these trade regulations–or deregulations–would strip even more control.

They do add that the “TPP would help us promote a global order that reflects our interests and our values,” which is probably true. Those interests and values, however, are rarely protected in the public interest or in such a way that they value the lives of the faraway people on the ground who must deal with their ramifications. The “cooperation, accountability and greater respect for human dignity” that Kerry and Carter promise TPP would bring lack historical precedent in the proud trade “tradition” that they say the TPP continues.

“One of the greatest bulwarks against the spread of violent extremism is to replace poverty with opportunity, and TPP would create economic growth and unlock opportunities for workers and businesses across the region.” Yet, who locked those opportunities in the first place? Poverty is not a naturally occurring phenomenon, nor is it an unfortunate consequence of lazy, backward people who don’t know how to work in an industrialized advanced economy. It is a byproduct of the same kind of global economic system that the TPP (and TTIP) would deepen evenr further: Kerry and Carter may claim that “the alternative [to the TPP] is a race to the bottom,” but that is no alternative. That is precisely the race Congress may be signing us up for by if they eventually pass Fast Track/TPA and the TAA package–let alone the TPP itself.

The other unpleasant side effect Kerry and Carter have attributed to the failure to approve the TPP is that without it, “America’s influence abroad” would be “undercut.” In the next breath, they invoked the threat of China, who might arise to fill the power vacuum that the lack of TPP would ostensibly create. And so now we come to one of the core reasons these government officials are cheerleading so hard for this deal that is the virtual photographic negative of everything they paint it to be: China. The possible challenger on the horizon, the threat to our hegemony, to our influence abroad, to that most pristine economic record of delivering the “peace and prosperity” they’re sure you’ve been experiencing… Allowing China to gain a handle on trade in its region might, yes, perhaps “reward those quickest to abandon values and compete at any cost.” But that path of downward-spiraling global trade and policies will not be one for China to blaze alone–we have walked it first, and over and over again. The TPP will be a familiar jaunt down that same road, though the destination could be darker than ever before, given the enormous threat of climate change that Kerry and Carter blithely skip over. They assure us that the TPP will contain stronger environmental regulations than ever before, but that should be neither reassuring nor placating.

Over and over, Kerry and Carter and the Obama administration in general insist that the TPP will “revitalize and expand the system that has served us so well.” The system has undoubtedly served them well, but it might do them well to remember that the word “us” extends far beyond the corporate captains of this sinking ship. This is no “new-and-improved” trade deal. It’s not improved, and it isn’t even new–it’s the same old toxic medicine, with stakes higher than ever. If ever there were a time–however unlikely is is that that opportunity will be seized–for the US to change its foreign and economic policies and begin learning better, urgent lessons from history (and current events), that time is now.