The Trans-Pacific Partnership Is No Aircraft Carrier

Framing the Trans-Pacific Partnership as an urgent issue for U.S. national security is frankly unproductive.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership Is No Aircraft Carrier
Credit: Flickr/ U.S. Department of Defense

As reported by Prashanth Parameswaran, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has joined the chorus in favor of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Carter has made explicit the national security “turn” in the TPP debate by analogizing the agreement to the construction of a new aircraft carrier.

The reformulation of the TPP conversation as a national security issue is puzzling, but isn’t necessarily new. David Petraeus made the same case for the TPP last year, arguing that American credibility depended on offering our friends and allies the security and predictability of a multi-lateral trade agreement. Patrick Cronin makes a similar case, although his argument (like that of Petraeus) is a conceptual mess, conjuring terrors of Australia and Japan realigning around Beijing, and implying that changing the way that Vietnam handles American intellectual property regulation will somehow have an effect on Chinese expansion in the South China Sea. Michelle Flournoy and Ely Ratner made roughly the same argument in the Wall Street Journal.

Who are these people trying to convince?  The national security “turn” in the TPP conversation is unlikely to carry much weight abroad, and so must be aimed at a domestic audience.

The best case for weaponization of the TPP is founded on the argument that the United States faces a systemic challenge in the Asia-Pacific; that is to say, China is challenging the regional liberal economic order that the United States has helped to create and maintain. The TPP, by engaging the critical states of the region and convincing them to support the rule-set preferred by the United States, will help shore up and defend that system. This, rather than quasi-mystical gobbledygook about allies losing faith in American credibility, should be the center of the national security argument for the TPP.

We certainly have precedent for the weaponization of trade agreements. One of the central planks underlying the creation of the European Coal and Steel Commission (and later the European Economic Community, and the European Union) was the idea that trade agreements could help keep Germany in line, and keep Russia out. Along with NATO, this represents the core of the European security system.

But the TPP is not the EU, or the EEC, and it doesn’t have a counterpart like NATO. It’s also hardly obvious at this point that the TPP will have the huge effect on economic behavior and patterns of trade that the national security argument seems to imply. Indeed, some of the arguments in favor of the agreement, with an eye on the concerns of domestic labor groups, emphasize a relatively small economic impact. The TPP will likely, it is true, have some redistributionary effects with respect to trade, investment, and capital flows, but the agreement simply lacks the scope to transform the geopolitical landscape.

And we should recall that at least part of the purpose of a trade agreement should involve improving the conditions of American workers, consumers, and firms. Weaponizing the agreement, which represents the de facto exclusion of China, limits the extent to which Americans can reap the benefits, if any, of the TPP. China is a more important single trading partner than any of the members of the TPP, and it would be a shame if Beijing came to understand the treaty as a hostile American foothold in the region.