The following op-ed was originally published in The Hill on September 24, 2021.
Is there something in the water? Or maybe, too much time in pandemic lockdown is finally affecting politicians' judgment. Whatever is going on, there are some spectacularly bad ideas about trade policy being floated that, for all our sakes, should be smacked down pronto.
Let's start with United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has suggested the United Kingdom join the new NAFTA trade deal, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). This is a particularly incoherent proposal given that the U.K.'s own trade negotiations with the U.S. were hung up on legitimate concerns among U.K. farmers, consumers and animal welfare campaigners. They worry that lifting restrictions on U.S. food imports would undermine consumer protections and pose a financial threat to U.K. farmers forced to compete with U.S. factory farms. To now leap into the USMCA, which was negotiated without regard to the interests and policies of the U.K. and is designed to advance the interests of those same factory farms is kind of nuts.
To be clear, concerns about USMCA are not limited to agriculture. Although USMCA incorporated some positive changes in the environment and labor chapters, the bulk of the agreement is a doubling down on the deregulatory focus that deep-sixed negotiations for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Are we forgetting that TTIP wasn't particularly popular in the U.K. either, epitomized in the chlorinated chicken debate? Under USMCA, agribusiness, fossil fuel, chemical and plastics manufacturers have already tried to leverage the regulatory cooperation and technical barriers to trade provisions to object to respectively, Mexico's GMO and glyphosate restrictions; junk food warning labels in both Canada and Mexico; and Canada's proposed ban on single-use plastics.
Then there's U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who is initiating an international coalition to somehow undermine the EU's Farm to Fork policies, which he claims aren't based on science. Never mind that these seem to be many of the same policies aimed at promoting sustainable climate-friendly trade of which U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai has so eloquently spoken. Never mind that Brazil, which has apparently expressed interest, is the poster child for climate and environment-unfriendly practices, including deforestation, pesticide overuse and intensive livestock production. And never mind that Vilsack's verbal attacks on EU domestic policies were lobbed just days before the planned first meeting of a cross-Atlantic Trade and Technology Council intended to get the U.S. and EU working together on trade issues including climate.
Finally, in a knee-jerk response to China's proposal to join the renamed Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Transpacific Partnership (CPTPP) — a trade pact founded to exclude China— some members of Congress want the U.S. to rush back into a deal it rightly rejected in case China "beats us to the punch." Aside from the schoolyard bully analogy, which in any event doesn't provide a coherent rationale for this about-face, the suggestion is at odds with the "worker-centric" and climate-friendly trade policies articulated by both President Biden and top U.S. trade official Tai. While USMCA has its problems, the CPTPP is worse. The Transpacific Partnership was broadly unpopular in Congress and with the public and doesn't include the beefed-up labor and environmental enforcement provisions Tai negotiated for the USMCA. It includes investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS), a mechanism that empowers corporations to sue governments over public interest laws and that has been used repeatedly to overturn policies to address climate change. In fact, changing the title to include the word "progressive" merely highlights the fact that its text is anything but.
Addressing issues of equity and climate and responding to the economic challenges of the pandemic within our trade policy isn't easy. Significant change is needed, and the quick fixes being bruited about take us in the wrong direction. Biden's USTR deserves credit for trying to significantly reorient the nation's trade policy. That takes time and thoughtfulness. Expanding the USMCA beyond North America; rejoining the deeply flawed Transpacific Partnership; or engaging in coalition-building to attack rather than emulate allies' climate policies won't help.