It’s too early to tell whether Congress should ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty that the Obama administration negotiated with 11 countries on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. The details matter, and the actual text of the agreement won’t be released for a few weeks. Yet the very fact that negotiators from a dozen nations were able to strike a deal reflects the inescapable reality that trade is more globalized than ever before, which is why the administration is right to pursue agreements that promote higher standards for commerce in the 21st century.
Increasing trade around the world is a net positive in theory because it means more goods will be produced and consumed, leading to more economic activity and growth. That’s why the United States has sought for decades to reduce the barriers that protect industries around the world against foreign competition. Two such barriers — import tariffs and quotas — would be reduced by the TPP in numerous industries, albeit not completely. For example, the deal calls for Canada to allow imported products to hold just a slightly larger share of its markets for eggs, chickens and other agricultural goods.
The trickier exercise is preventing countries from using labor, environmental and other laws to give their industries an unfair advantage, which means setting the right common standards for how goods should be produced. Trade deals shouldn’t encourage a race to the bottom when it comes to environmental and labor protections; instead, they should push for standards that protect the long-term interests of their people. Monday’s deal appears to do that in several areas, including more demanding and enforceable provisions on minimum wages, collective bargaining and forced labor, sustainable fishing and logging. It also has laudable protections for the Internet and e-commerce.
It’s not clear yet, though, whether negotiators struck the right balance between competing industries’ interests in other areas, such as automobiles, where the deal may help Asian automakers with suppliers in China (not a TPP signatory) at the expense of parts manufacturers in the United States and Mexico.
That’s why the details matter. Nevertheless, lawmakers shouldn’t preemptively reject the TPP, as some industries and interest groups that oppose even incremental steps toward free trade have urged. As the distance between countries is obliterated by commerce and technology, the U.S. can’t simply impose the rules it wants for trade on the rest of the world; it has to negotiate for them. The administration deserves credit for getting this far — and a fair hearing for what it has proposed.