TPP means economic growth and US leadership

When the Obama administration concluded the Trans-Pacific Partnership last month, the reaction was mixed: a few cheers and a few jeers but most withheld final judgment until they could review the text.  Now that the text is public, we expect rigorous scrutiny of the details.  But we also hope that Congress and the American people will assess TPP in the broader context.  As chiefs of staff to presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, we view TPP as the culmination of the work of three U.S. presidents to strengthen the economy and security of the United States by integrating it more closely with the Pacific Rim.

This work began in 1993 when President Clinton hosted the first ever leaders’ meeting of the APEC countries, the regional economic forum that embraced in 1994 the goal of “free and open trade and investment for the Asia-Pacific.”  President George W. Bush began to put in place the architecture to realize this goal, negotiating free-trade agreements with Singapore, Australia, and Korea – and deciding in 2008 to join a negotiation among four Asia-Pacific nations that would be renamed the Trans-Pacific Partnership.  President Obama aggressively advanced this negotiation, which would grow to include more than half of APEC’s members and account for nearly 40 percent of global GDP.

{mosads}At a time when our government is plagued by partisan division, it is encouraging to recall this continuity of trade policy among administrations of different parties.  In fact, each of the last three presidents launched trade negotiations that were concluded and implemented by the next president.  NAFTA, the Uruguay Round (establishing the World Trade Organization), as well as trade agreements with partners in Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East were started by one president and finished by another.

TPP follows in this tradition.  If ultimately approved by Congress, TPP will reduce or eliminate barriers for U.S. manufacturers, farmers, and service providers and strengthen property rights for American investors and innovators.  It will level the playing field for U.S. businesses and workers by raising international standards for transparency, labor rights, and the environment and by introducing new rules to mitigate the advantages enjoyed by state-owned companies.  The agreement will protect the free flow of data – the new lifeblood of business that disproportionately benefits small and medium-sized enterprises with limited physical infrastructure.

TPP will open the highly protected agricultural market of Japan to U.S. farmers.  It will create a new rules-based partnership with rapidly-growing Vietnam and Malaysia.  And it will address the gaps in our existing agreements with Canada, Mexico, Australia, Peru and Chile.

Should Congress fail promptly to approve TPP, the United States runs the risk of losing both economic opportunities and the mantle of leadership in setting global trade rules.  Many less ambitious trade agreements in the region not involving the United States have already entered into force.  Several others are under negotiation.  TPP is the instrument not only to ensure access for U.S. exports, but also to establish an American template for 21st century trade agreements. 

Beyond trade, TPP will also strengthen the relationships with each of our partner countries, reinforcing U.S. leadership in a region where strategic and territorial rivalries continue to threaten stability.  The only winner from a U.S. failure to implement TPP would be China, whose economic and strategic influence in the region would continue to grow at the expense of ours.

Despite these compelling benefits, TPP faces opposition from politicians and interest groups from both ends of the political spectrum. On the left, organized labor and certain environmental groups reflexively oppose TPP, refusing to acknowledge the changes that successive administrations have made to address their concerns. Regrettably, these groups exercise outsized influence on Democratic political candidates. On the right, TPP has come under fire from Tea Party activists and even a few GOP presidential contenders, who are overtly protectionist (notably Donald Trump) or who perceive political opportunity in opposing whatever Obama supports.

TPP is not perfect.  A few business sectors have expressed disappointment with the outcome.  The market exclusivity period for innovative biological medicines, for example, is far shorter than the United States was seeking. U.S. agricultural groups in general strongly support TPP, but U.S. dairy and rice producers still have questions about whether TPP does enough to open foreign markets.

Each of these groups has the right and obligation to scrutinize the deal from the perspective of its members.  Congress and the American public, however, should assess the agreement on whether, in total, it advances American commercial and strategic objectives, not on whether each business sector and interest group was able to obtain its preferred outcome.

Our 2017 successor as White House chief of staff – of whichever party – will face daunting challenges in helping the next president promote economic growth, maintain our security, and exercise effective American leadership.  Reflecting our parties, we will likely disagree strongly on the policies best suited to those ends.  But we are in complete agreement that a Trans-Pacific Partnership that advances these goals will be an essential tool for the next Administration in ensuring a vital America for decades to come.

Bolten is a managing director at Rock Creek Global Advisors and former White House chief of staff to President George W. Bush. McLarty is the chairman of McLarty Associates and former White House chief of staff to President Bill Clinton.

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