The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) was just signed in Auckland today, despite well-organised protests, and reasonable disagreements (excepting, naturally, the hyperbole of one Matthew Hooton, who – to ape his style of discourse – is an ‘insane and embittered right-wing PR hack’) between various bodies in Aotearoa. The fact that it has been signed doesn’t in itself change our world; now the treaty has to be ratified via legislation, and it is quite possible that even at this late stage everything could collapse because – despite the assurances of US negotiators – the Congress of the United States of America may decide to either change the terms of the deal, or just not ratify it on their end.
Will that happen? Well, indications are that Congress wants ‘clarification’ on some key points (read: they want to change some of the details and requirements their negotiators committed them to), and given that President Obama has signalled that the TPPA’s signing is something he is keen on, its even possible that Republican-controlled Congress might decide not to ratify the treaty through legislation just out of sheer spite.1 Some have speculated that as the US never really have played fair when it comes to trade agreements – the Land of the Free likes other nations to drop tariffs; it just doesn’t think that should be a two-way street – expecting the US to sign away even the most minor concessions is laughable.
The chief complaint about the TPPA has been the secrecy under which it was negotiated, after all. Only the negotiators knew what their respective governments were willing to trade away or compromise on for potential benefits. This was not a trade deal in which the public were asked ‘What do you think?’ Rather, it was handed to them, under the idea ‘This is the best we could do!’ Most of the conspiracy theories surrounding the TPPA either have it governments like ours (Aotearoa) were always seeking to serve US interests, or the negotiators were so captured by the idea of needing to not lose face and admit the deal is bad that they have lied about the pros out weighing the cons. I’m not going to speak directly to either of those possibilities here.
No; indulge me, if you will, in a bit of ideation about another potential conspiracy. We all know (or, at least, we pretend to know) that if the TPPA was ever worth undertaking, the day the US was invited to the table was the day it got bent out of shape. The US is an economic juggernaut, whilst the original parties to the TPPA (Aotearoa, Brunei, Singapore, and Chile) were small trading partners with a few shared economic interests. The US’ demands required significant concessions of these small parties just to get them in the room. What if, then, the US never intended to give anything up at all? What if joining in the negotiations – and requiring the other players do things they didn’t want to, like extending copyright terms and the like – was merely a useful way to encourage foreign nations to adopt US-style laws without having to advocate for them through open processes?
Think of it this way:2 Given that the TPPA covers 12 countries, one country – even a big one like the US – pulling out wouldn’t necessitate the agreement collapsing. The other countries could still ratify in the hope the US would eventually join, or because they think the benefits of the treaty can still be realised without engagement from the US. Or – and I’m fond of this bit of folk psychology – the negotiators and their respective governments, because they have spent so much time and effort convincing people – including themselves – that the TPPA is good, end up ratifying just to prove their detractors wrong.
Let’s assume the US proponents of ‘American laws overseas’ know this. They want US-style laws around copyright and the like, but have found that foreign governments have been loathe to adopt them, for a variety of reasons, including fear of public opprobrium. Having failed to win the war of ideas in the democratic space, US legal patriots decide that the best way to foster US-style laws overseas is by getting governments to agree to them for some greater good… Such as improved trade access to the US market. Rather than deal with hesitant governments, they decide to push for US-style laws and regulations with the negotiators of trade deals, knowing that if they can make the turn towards Americana a straight trade-off, governments will come around to their way of thinking.
So, the US – in this story – could have entered negotiations and pushed other nations to adopt US-centric proposals, knowing that they wouldn’t have to ratify the agreement. After all, once the treaty is signed, the other nations are likely to ratify even without the US. Not doing so would be tantamount to admitting that all that effort not only had been squandered, but that the US-style changes in law aren’t actually good in-and-of-themselves. As such,3 the US gets its way without having to commit to anything.
Is this conspiracy plausible? Maybe not; the theory requires that Congress would falsely oppose the TPPA, or that President Obama would exercise his powers to fast-track the TPPA knowing that it would not pass. However, I do think that, given so many of us have shaken our heads about the whole TPPA process, its plausible enough to think ‘That’s how it could have gone down.’ No one (read: not many) outside the government seems to think the TPPA brings much to the tale, but many of the nay-sayers say we still have to sup there, because missing out would be disastrous. That is to say4 – in the words of Douglas Adams – it’s a by-pass; you’ve got to build by-passes. The worry is that the US doesn’t have to do much of anything to get us to copy them; they just have to look like they might give us some concessions.
- The power of spite in US politics is strong at the moment; I suspect it will be granted the status of a person any day now, and will promptly sue all and sundry.↩
- This is a stylistic quirk I’m considering ridding myself of, given that I feel I use it a lot in my writing.↩
- Another stylistic quirk.↩
- A third quirk.↩