TPP: The “National Security” Sales Pitch

After a quarter century of off-shored jobs and depressed wages in the wake of corporate-driven trade de-regulation, the claim that the TPP will make life better for American workers is so discredited that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are opposed.

During the 1993 congressional debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement, a Democratic Congressman with a solid pro-labor voting record asked me why I thought NAFTA would be bad for working people.

“Well, you may be right about the economics,” the Congressman concluded. “But we have a 2000-mile border with Mexico.  The President told me we need NAFTA to make it secure.”

NAFTA was the economic model for the neoliberal trade deals that followed, including the currently proposed 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership. The arguments for NAFTA also set the pattern for the debates over those deals; when the economic case crumbles, “national security” becomes the fallback rationale.

After a quarter century of off-shored jobs and depressed wages in the wake of corporate-driven trade de-regulation, the claim that the TPP will make life better for American workers is so discredited that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are opposed. But the Republican leadership and Barack Obama still want it, and they will try to get Congressional approval in the post-election “lame duck” session before the new president takes office.

True to form, their sales pitch has shifted from the claim that the TPP will make Americans prosperous to the claim that it will make America safer. 

Defense SecretaryAshton Carter says “passing TPP is as important to me as another aircraft carrier.” Eight former Defense secretaries assure Congressional leaders that approving the TPP will “contribute to a safer world for us, our children and our grandchildren.” Obama’s former chief economist Alan Krueger now tells us that “trade agreements are primarily about foreign relations.”

Destabilizing the Border
Unfortunately, the foreign policy case for these neoliberal trade deals has fared no better than the economic policy case.The national security argument for NAFTA was that: 1) it would reduce illegal immigration and 2) it would transform Mexico into a prosperous, First World democracy under the rule of law.

But within a few years, the economic dislocation triggered by NAFTA led to millions of jobless Mexicans heading north across the border. In response, the U.S. has built 670 miles of hi-tech fence -- with another 700 miles planned -- and deployed almost 20,000 guards to patrol it with dogs, guns and drones. In effect, we are already on our way to building Donald Trump’s wall.

Far from making Mexico more stable, NAFTA helped plunge the country into lawlessness and social turmoil. The huge increase in trade overwhelmed U.S. Customs, making it easier to ship marijuana and cocaine into our eager market. Drug cartels fought over the profits, spreading criminal violence throughout the country. The State Department now warns Americans against traveling to Mexican border states where “U.S. citizens have been the victims of violent crimes, such as homicide, kidnapping, carjacking and robbery by organized criminal groups”

Financing the China “Threat”
Six years after signing NAFTA, Bill Clinton, pushed by corporate lobbyists, agreed to the Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) deal that allowed American investors to produce goods for the U.S. market made by exploited Chinese workers. PNTR, Clinton told us, was a clever geopolitical strategy to “pull China in the right direction” i.e., toward greater democracy and the role of America’s junior partner in Asia.

After sixteen years, Americans are now told that China moved in the “wrong” direction. Internally, it remains a harsh authoritarian state. Externally, flush with dollars from its massive trade surpluses with the US, China has expanded its armed forces and employed its economic power to pry America out of its hegemonic position in South East Asia.

In response, the US is building up its network of military bases and supplying more weapons and training to China’s neighbors – all of which are, ironically, following China’s “wrong” model of authoritarian capitalism.  Today, US and Chinese war planes and ships are buzzing each other in the South China Sea over territorial disputes that have nothing to do with the security of the people of the United States.

Short of war, the U.S. can no more stop China from dominating the South China Sea than China can stop the U.S. from dominating the Caribbean. China’s trade with its neighbors already dwarfs their trade with us. The gap, and China’s influence, will inevitably grow.

If anything, the TPP will make it worse. By weakening the standards for “local content”, it will increase the proportion of TPP countries’ exports to the US that are made in China.

Moreover, despite their current National Security rhetoric, the TPP negotiators actually dropped the provisions in previous trade deals that allowed the U.S. government to stop foreign acquisitions of American firms if deemed a threat to national defense.

As the arguments for TPP dissolve, its promoters’ last-ditch claim is that we need it to preserve credibility – otherwise know as “saving face.” Failure to approve the deal, says the President,  “would call into question America’s leadership in this vital region.”

Really? Certainly, the leaders of the other nations involved understood that Congressional approval was not a sure thing. They will be disappointed, of course, and any US diplomat who assured them that it was a slam-dunk will be embarrassed. So what?

The TPP will not be the first agreement negotiated by a US administration that Congress has turned down. The Law of the Sea, for example, was negotiated in 1982, and we still have not ratified it. Has the US Navy lost credibility? Do other nations not ship their goods to us? Do we still not assume the role of guarantor of freedom of the seas?

As for credibility, the United States suffered a humiliating military defeat in Viet Nam, and we are still by far the most respected military force in the region.

The U.S. will remain a major player in the Asia whether or not the TPP is approved. And our Asian “partners” are not likely to stop using us as a piece in their political chess games with China because they can’t get to sell us even more underwear and electronic gadgetry than they do now.

Like the other trade deals since NAFTA, the TPP is device for multinational capitalists to drive down the wages of American workers. No one should be fooled by the effort to paste over that ugly economic reality with a happy-face sticker labeled “National Security.”

Jeff Faux

Jeff Faux, Member of the Editorial Board of Insight, is the founder and former president of the Economic Policy Institute and the author of the new book "The Servant Economy: Where America's Elite is Sending the Middle Class".