Trans-Pacific Partnership and Trump

| May 2016
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Listening to Marketplace’s discussion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, two things jumped out at me: the first is the assessment that, after all the heavy lifting creating this massive free-trade arrangement will require, the net benefits are quite modest. TPP is set to contribute .15 percent of growth to the U.S. GDP…by 2032, with job increases also pegged at under 1 percent (.07 percent by 2032).  (Others conclude that there will be no real net gains for the U.S.) The second was a comment made by Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, who noted that a focus on jobs and growth was the wrong approach: TPP should be seen in light of “geopolitics” and cementing ties with allies in Asia. Most importantly, TPP is about creating global architecture, setting down rules of the road.

This view tracks very well with the brief laid out by Michael Mandelbaum a decade ago: the case for why the United States deserves its superpower status, because of the global public goods it provides to the rest of the world. Martin Walker’s review in the New York Times summarized the argument and its implications: “The United States now functions as a global government, offering the planet the services of physical security, commercial regulation, financial stability and legal recourse that are normally provided by national governments to their citizens. Non-Americans naturally do not like to admit this, even as they enjoy the results, and American leaders do not like to spell it out, least of all to the voters who pay for it.”

Which brings us to the 2016 elections. Donald Trump can be said to be making the case “against Goliath”: that the United States should not be shouldering the burdens of global governance or paving the way for globalization if it does not bring immediate and direct benefits to U.S. citizens. When did American voters agree to provide “global public goods”—this is definitely part of the Trump message. Even for internationalists, such as Hillary Clinton, growing public skepticism about the value deals such as the TPP bring to the “average voter” have led to public reassessments. (A separate but related issue is how the 2016 campaign seems to be finally focusing attention in European capitals that, after years of blithely ignoring American requests to shoulder more of the burden of maintaining the North Atlantic alliance, it may be wise to begin demonstrating increased willingness to do more—driven in part by the sense that the mood among the American electorate towards the value and utility of NATO is changing.)

Several months ago, I talked about “narrative collapse”, the erosion of the view “that average Americans believed that their security and prosperity were intimately tied up with U.S. efforts to shape the global system and the international order.” All throughout the campaign, we have heard plenty of experts warning about the grave consequences of a U.S. withdrawal from the world. “But there has been less focus on making the case why any diminution of the U.S. role in the world (as tragic or risky as it might be for Jordan, Estonia, Vietnam or Colombia) would necessarily jeopardize the interests of average U.S. citizens. Trump’s rise, and to a lesser extent, that of Senator Bernie Sanders, is a direct reflection of this narrative collapse.”

So an assessment of TPP that brings no major gains for the U.S. economy—and is pitched in terms of America’s role of creating global architecture—may not resonate so much with voters in 2016.  This election is shaping up to be the first real referendum on America’s roles and responsibilities in sustaining the global system.


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