The administration is wrong to promote so-called “free-trade” deals.
Published in Dissent.
With recent revelations about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, it is now safe to say that President Obama has surpassed George W. Bush as a champion of the flawed and offensive ideology of corporate globalization.
This argument requires some explanation. Here’s the backstory: As the Bush administration commenced in the early 2000s, many argued that his foreign policy represented a continuation of the Clinton-era approach to promoting “free trade” neoliberalism overseas. However, I contended that, especially after the launch of the Iraq war in 2003, the unilateralist bullying of the neocons represented a split from past practice.
No doubt, big arms and big oil had their needs met by the Bush agenda. But his administration was wary of multilateral institutions such as the World Trade Organization and the World Bank, which were central instruments of U.S. policy under Clinton. The Bush approach relied on our-way-or-the-highway, coalition-of-the-willing hard power. This made a significant portion of corporate America uncomfortable, especially businesses trying to navigate and expand in foreign markets. It also left the soft-power agenda of “free trade” in an uncertain state.
This was essentially the thesis of my 2008 book, How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy. Around the time the book came out, I wrote:
“In October 2007…the Wall Street Journal reported that the [Republican] party could be facing a brand crisis as “[s]ome business leaders are drifting away from the party because of the war in Iraq, the growing federal debt and a conservative social agenda they don’t share.”
When it comes to corporate responses to [Bush’s] Global War on Terror, we mostly hear about the likes of Halliburton and Blackwater—companies directly implicated in the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and with the mentality of looters. Such firms have done their best to score quick profits from the military machine. However, there was always a faction of realist, business-oriented Republicans who opposed the invasion from the start, in part because they believed it would negatively impact the U.S. economy. As the [Bush administration’s] adventure in Iraq has descended into the morass, the ranks of corporate complainers have only grown.
The “free trade” elite have become particularly upset about the administration’s focus on go-it-alone nationalism and its disregard for multilateral means of securing influence. This belligerent approach to foreign affairs, they believe, has thwarted the advance of corporate globalization. In an April 2006 column in the Washington Post, globalist cheerleader Sebastian Mallaby laid blame for “why globalization has stalled” at the feet of the Bush administration. The White House, Mallaby charged, was unwilling to invest any political capital in the IMF, the World Bank, or the WTO….Frustrated by Bush’s failures, many in the business elite want to return to the softer empire of corporate globalization and, increasingly, they are looking to the Democrats to navigate this return.”
My concern back then was that a Democrat (either Obama or Hillary Clinton) would be elected to office and then abandon the overt militarism and “imperial globalization” of the Bush administration, but embrace a subtler, more multilateralist “free trade” neoliberalism—reclaiming the agenda of corporate globalization. I would have been pleased if this prediction had proved wrong. Sadly, Obama has provided irrefutable evidence that he has boarded the corporate globalist bandwagon.
At the end of the administration’s first year, I gave Obama a “B” for trade policy on a report card for Foreign Policy In Focus. While there was some rumbling about resurrecting stalled bilateral trade deals with Korea, Panama, and Colombia, the administration hadn’t done much to push things forward. Things were quiet. And given the kind of trade deals that Washington has brokered in the last couple decades, no news is good news in this arena.
Unfortunately, by 2011, the administration was pushing these so-called “free trade” deals hard. It succeeded in passing them through Congress and then signing them into law last fall.
Obama’s trade policy grade was plummeting, but new information shows things to be even worse. In the past month the president has officially failed out of “fair trade” class. On June 13, Public Citizen released a leaked document showing that the TPP—a trade agreement being negotiated between the United States and eight Pacific countries under considerable secrecy—is shaping up to be as bad as NAFTA or worse.
Public Citizen wrote in a press release:
“Although the TPP has been branded a “trade” agreement, the leaked text of the pact’s Investment Chapter shows that the TPP would:
—Limit how U.S. federal and state officials could regulate foreign firms operating within U.S. boundaries, with requirements to provide them greater rights than domestic firms;
—Extend the incentives for U.S. firms to offshore investment and jobs to lower-wage countries;
—Establish a two-track legal system that gives foreign firms new rights to skirt U.S. courts and laws, directly sue the U.S. government before foreign tribunals and demand compensation for financial, health, environmental, land use and other laws they claim undermine their TPP privileges; and
—Allow foreign firms to demand compensation for the costs of complying with U.S. financial or environmental regulations that apply equally to domestic and foreign firms.”
In the weeks since that leak, it has been reported that Mexico and Canada will both be joining TPP talks, setting the stage for the creation of a behemoth trading bloc. This bloc will operate based on rules backed (and often concocted) by corporate lobbyists.
It didn’t have to be this way. It was not preordained that President Obama would become Corporate-Globalizer-in-Chief. The base of the Democratic Party has aligned itself firmly against the “free trade” agenda—so much so that both Obama and Clinton campaigned in 2008 against the NAFTA model and in favor of a “fair trade” alternative. In fact, going into the 2012 elections, there’s evidence that Obama’s betrayal of earlier vows could be a significant liability among voters and a bitter pill for key constituencies the president needs if his campaign is going to overcome the enthusiasm gap between progressives and the Republican faithful.
Yet instead of taking the chance to redefine American interests in the world as something other than securing profits for U.S. businesses, Obama has allowed an ingrained pro-corporate obsequiousness to permeate the office of the U.S. Trade Representative and the Department of State.
It’s not the unilaterist hubris of the Bush administration. But it’s still a detestable foreign policy—and a sorely missed opportunity for something better.
Photo credit: Pete Souza / White House.