A decade and a half ago, I filled my days writing speeches urging Congress to grant President George W. Bush fast-track trade authority. If memory serves, I wrote more speeches on that one subject than on any other. Obviously, I didn’t earn my pay: Despite Republican majorities in both Houses, Congress balked.
This past year, President Obama has worked as hard for fast-track authority as President Bush ever did. It now seems that his efforts will prove as unavailing. This time, if anything, the loss is even more heartbreaking, because the prize in reach is bigger than anything on offer in 2001-2002: a Trans-Pacific Partnership on trade.
TPP matters both to the American economy and to American security. China’s admission to the World Trade Organization in 2001 was necessary and unavoidable. How can you sustain a multilateral-trade regime without including the world’s largest exporter and second-largest importer? But the price of China’s inclusion in the WTO was the paralysis of the multilateral trade regime that had evolved since the 1940s: Trade-liberalization negotiations that included China just became too difficult.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership tries to work around China’s obstructionism by limiting the next round of trade liberalization to 11 highly congenial countries: Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States, and Vietnam. Not all are liberal democracies, but all are committed to a more open global-trading regime. Even more than the U.S.-Canada trade agreement of 1988, which was widened to include Mexico in 1994, TPP is intended to be an “open architecture” agreement, to which other countries can adhere in future if they so wish. In other words, while the door is open to China, the house is being built to non-Chinese specifications and without China’s veto. Since the TPP states together represent not only 40 percent of the world economy, but also many of China’s largest trade partners, the agreement will constrain China’s future trade behavior. TPP thus asserts Western and American will and power against an often-recalcitrant China.