This is the first of three posts on the challenges that Hillary Clinton faces on trade in campaigning against her rival Donald Trump.
Heading to Detroit last week fast on the heels of Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton outlined her own economic plan and took some effective swipes at Trump's. Clinton's speech gives a pretty good indication of what's there (as well as what's arguably missing) in her stance on trade. Reflecting what seems to be a decision by the campaign that Trump's attack on trade has to be met head on, Clinton made a remarkable admission that past trade agreements (including, implicitly, some she supported) had not turned out as promised for American workers: "It’s true that too often, past trade deals have been sold to the American people with rosy scenarios that did not pan out. Those promises now ring hollow in many communities across Michigan and our country that have seen factories close and jobs disappear. Too many companies lobbied for trade deals so they could sell products abroad but then they instead moved abroad and sold back into the United States." Clinton then went on to affirm her opposition to TPP in the strongest terms yet: "The answer is to finally make trade work for us, not against us. So my message to every worker in Michigan and across America is this: I will stop any trade deal that kills jobs or holds down wages – including the Trans-Pacific Partnership. I oppose it now, I’ll oppose it after the election, and I’ll oppose it as President."
Having accepted that past trade deals haven't been working out for ordinary Americans, what Clinton did not say is that she would, like Trump, take the next step of opening up these deals and attempting to renegotiate them with the other parties. Going forward, there is probably some value in Clinton responding to Trump more explicitly on the renegotiation point. One response might be that the damage is already done in large part (the jobs already gone) and using the US's global economic and political power to reopen past deals in those circumstances is wasteful. Another might be to say simply that there will be occasion in the future to revisit past deals, and where these are subject to review or revision-as with WTO treaties in new rounds of negotiations-that if she is President she'll insure that they are changed in ways that protect workers, and reflect progressive values.
On TPP, Clinton's position seems firm and unambiguous as regards the current signed text. But some progressive groups are asking her to go further, and actively oppose President Obama putting that text to Congress before the end of his administration. Though I'm opposed to TPP in its present form, I do think that the President is owed the respect or deference to be given a chance to pass TPP during his mandate. Whatever one thinks of the merits of TPP, the President won TPA ("fast-track") fair and square. If Congress were to approve the agreement and the US to ratify it on President Obama's watch, however, this would not eliminate Hillary Clinton's options, if elected, to stop TPP in its present form. Briefly, because of the ratifications of other countries that are required before TPP comes into force, it is virtually certain that the agreement is not going to be definitively binding before the next President takes office. Could Clinton, consistent with international law, simply withdraw the consent of the United States to TPP before it comes into force? One reading of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties Article 18 is that a state has the opportunity to make its intention clear not to be bound by a treaty at any point in time between signature and the treaty coming into force. As a matter of domestic US law as opposed to international law, Clinton would have to go back to Congress, I'd assume, in order to reverse effectively consent to TPP. The plausibility of that would depend on how the new Congress looks.
What Clinton could say is that, if elected President, she will take all steps consistent with her authority as President and with international law to ensure that TPP is changed to address the concerns that underlie her opposition to the current text, and if not, that it is stopped. Given the ongoing debates about ratification in several TPP countries, it is unlikely that the other parties to TPP would simply at this stage close the door to changes. The amendments provision of TPP is broadly drafted, and just says that the parties may agree in writing to amendments without establishing any particular set of procedures or preconditions that have to be met for an amendment to be proposed. And uncertainty about ultimate US adhesion to TPP could provide a boost to anti-TPP forces in other countries that have not yet ratified.
Now what if Congress does not approve TPP before Clinton is elected? Does she simply say to the other parties that the US is out of it? Or does she try at least to open the door to further negotiations and possible amendments? That goes to the more general question of whether Clinton's policy on trade is simply about stopping bad agreements. Would a Hillary Clinton administration take any initiative to pursue good trade agreements, for example those that would support Clinton's climate objectives, or provide leverage for cooperation on tax evasion? In a powerful recent oped, Dani Rodrik suggests that we probably don't need much more global economic governance, our economic policy challenges (especially those of the large powers like the US and the EU) need to be solved by better domestic governance. I'm not 100% persuaded by Dani's argument (more on that next post); but if the notion that we don't need more trade agreements is the unspoken premise of Clinton's exclusive emphasis on stopping bad ones, at least she has one of the world's leading international economists on her side.