The challenge for internationalists in Election 2016
© Greg Nash
The 2016 election is not only a contest between two parties, but it is also a contest between two different visions of economic internationalism and human rights. Both candidates have made it clear that Americans and Americans must come first when we negotiate international agreements.
 
Secretary Clinton argues that we can put Americans first by shaping global values and leading the global economy and polity. She says we must honor our international commitments and use our economic leverage to make the world a better place.
 
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In contrast, Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpThis week: House kicks off public phase of impeachment inquiry Impeachment week: Trump probe hits crucial point Judd Gregg: The big, big and bigger problem MORE says we can only put Americans first by devaluing our commitments to others. He recommends that the U.S. withdraw from our treaty commitments, give short shrift to longstanding human rights norms, and build walls to keep out foreigners. His arguments speak to many workers long frustrated by trade agreements. 
 
Secretary Clinton has struggled to balance her longstanding support of economic internationalism with her desire to show American workers she puts them first. In 2015, despite longstanding support for the idea of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement among twelve nations bordering the Pacific, Secretary Clinton stated that she opposes the agreement in current form.
 
She said, "It didn't meet my standards…for more new, good jobs for Americans, for raising wages for Americans. And I want to make sure that I can look into the eyes of any middle-class American and say, ‘this will help raise your wages.’ And I concluded I could not." 
 
Secretary Clinton is right that TPP and other trade agreements can’t raise wages, which are set by government officials and employers. Nor can it directly create jobs. However, TPP can enhance the human welfare of both Americans and citizens in the eleven other TPP nations.
 
TPP has binding and disputable language designed to empower workers and labor unions in repressive countries such as Vietnam where corporations increasingly source. It also has new language on information flows that could bolster Internet freedom. Moreover, TPP requires member states to govern in the sunshine and encourage public participation and public challenges to regulations.
 
As a result, TPP could help enhance democracy in opaque states such as Malaysia where citizens struggle to hold corrupt leaders to account. By putting these people first, trade agreements such as TPP are likely to encourage political stability and economic growth, which could yield benefit for Americans over time. 
 
Many activists and union leaders have challenged TPP because of its process (which can be made more open and accountable), its investor state provisions (which empower firms to challenge some regulations as regulatory takings because these regulations can reduce the value of their investments), and its defenders — which include many of the same multinationals that have moved jobs overseas. They also blame globalization for wage stagnation and income inequality.
 
Secretary Clinton understandably respects these concerns, but she has said little about how she will address them short of abandoning TPP. Meanwhile, Trump has stated that he will abandon TPP and the WTO and renegotiate bilateral trade agreements such as NAFTA.
 
But abandoning trade agreements and adopting protectionist measures can do little to maintain jobs, improve worker skills, increase productivity or enhance human welfare. Scholars and the Congressional agency GAO have shown that when the U.S. increases tariffs on foreign goods and services, the benefits of these higher prices accrue to shareholders and other investors. These shareholders and investors will not use the temporary breathing room of protectionism to enhance human welfare by investing in worker training or improve workplace conditions. 
 
Nonetheless internationalists need to make better and different arguments for trade agreements that show how these agreements benefit average Americans.
 
Here’s what internationalists should say. Trade agreements are not just about expanding trade. They are governance agreements; they regulate how and when nations can use regulations such as health and safety standards that can distort trade among nations.
 
Moreover, TPP has binding and disputable human rights provision—it is the first trade agreement to directly address some human rights. In so doing, TPP is a first step in rebalancing of the interests of people and corporations in trade agreements.
 
In this digital age, people are the principle wealth of nations. Countries that respect human rights and invest in their people are those that will continue to grow. Trade agreements such as TPP can help policymakers in the developing world respect human rights.
 
Moreover, if they don’t, TPP provides a process and legal mechanisms to challenge countries that undermine some human rights in order to obtain comparative advantage. Hence, while trade agreements such as TPP don’t directly put Americans first, they provide the tools to ensure that people come first. 
 
Susan Ariel Aaronson is research professor of international affairs at the George Washington University and the author of many books and articles on trade and human rights.
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