Trump Vows to Disrupt Trade—Progressives Need to Push Him in the Right Direction

Michelle Chen November 22, 2016

One of Trump's first policy announcements was that he would immediately kill the already-stalled TPP negotiations. (cool revolution/ Flickr)

The one elec­tion issue tying togeth­er pop­ulist voic­es on the right and left was trade — or so it seemed. Don­ald Trump’s upset win, fueled in part by Rust Belt rage against free trade deals and glob­al­iza­tion, could hand lib­er­als an unex­pect­ed oppor­tu­ni­ty to push a fair­er set of trade rules, if they can shift the debate away from Trump’s reac­tionary bull in a Chi­na shop” spec­ta­cle and toward a con­crete move­ment to advance a peo­ple-cen­tered alter­na­tive, based on social-jus­tice prin­ci­ples not return-on-investment.

A group of human rights orga­ni­za­tions, includ­ing the Busi­ness & Human Rights Resource Cen­tre and Insti­tute for Pol­i­cy Stud­ies (IPS), has framed a human rights-based trade agen­da requir­ing sig­na­to­ries to under­stand, assess, and address their full effects on human rights, with a par­tic­u­lar focus on vul­ner­a­ble and mar­gin­al­ized groups,” such as women and migrants. Core pro­vi­sions would include the right to a safe and healthy envi­ron­ment, fair access to med­i­cines and respect for labor and indige­nous rights.

The group con­tends that pend­ing trade deals fail on these basic human rights stan­dards. Such deals include the Trans-Pacif­ic Part­ner­ship (TPP), which would link 12 Pacif­ic Rim nations and was panned by both Trump and Bernie Sanders dur­ing the cam­paign, and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Invest­ment Part­ner­ship (TTIP), which would con­nect Europe and the Unit­ed States.

One of Trump’s first pol­i­cy announce­ments was that he would imme­di­ate­ly kill the already-stalled TPP nego­ti­a­tions and, instead, seek to nego­ti­ate bilat­er­al trade agree­ments sup­pos­ed­ly more ben­e­fi­cial to the Unit­ed States. But pro­gres­sive inter­na­tion­al­ists, who note that the TPP was like­ly mori­bund any­way due to wide­spread pub­lic back­lash, warn that Trump’s rhetoric is equal­ly short-sighted.

In a broad­ly-word­ed mem­o­ran­dum on a 200-day trade agen­da, Trump’s camp has laid out a pro­gram of dereg­u­la­tion and cor­po­rate tax breaks as a way to pre­serve domes­tic man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs. The pres­i­dent-elect plans to sanc­tion Chi­na for vio­lat­ing trade rules and pro­mote Amer­i­ca First” by priv­i­leg­ing the enrich­ment of U.S. cor­po­ra­tions and work­ers above those of Mexico.

Despite its pop­ulist spin, Trump’s plan cen­ters on grow­ing multi­na­tion­al monop­o­lies, and by exten­sion, aggra­vat­ing glob­al inequal­i­ty, crit­ics say.

This is a guy who has said U.S. work­ers are over­paid, that cli­mate change is a hoax and that has no prob­lem bud­dy­ing up with author­i­tar­i­an regimes,” says Arthur Sta­moulis, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the fair-trade coali­tion Cit­i­zens Trade Campaign.

Advo­cates like Sta­moulis see Trump as a con­tin­u­a­tion of pre­vi­ous admin­is­tra­tions’ neolib­er­al agen­das. Even if he scraps the TPP and sim­i­lar deals, his whole busi­ness per­sona embod­ies the preda­to­ry multi­na­tion­al invest­ment that under­lies free-trade mar­ket lib­er­al­ism. Accord­ing to IPS asso­ciate fel­low Manuel Perez-Rocha, despite his pop­ulist veneer, the pres­i­dent-elect will like­ly expand free trade and cor­po­rate-friend­ly poli­cies but just with oth­er names.”

A struc­tur­al chal­lenge to the neolib­er­al order would involve tack­ling not only trade pol­i­cy, but also, for exam­ple, labor exploita­tion and dom­i­nance of inter­na­tion­al finan­cial insti­tu­tions over Glob­al South economies. Rather than Trump’s “‘them against us approach,” a left trade analy­sis should, in Perez-Rocha’s view, show all these prob­lems … are interconnected.”

Turn the sta­tus quo mod­el on its head”

Dur­ing the cam­paign, fair trade advo­cates argue, the Amer­i­ca First” ran­cor against the North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment (NAF­TA) and sim­i­lar­ly-maligned trade deals among Trump’s sup­port base stemmed from a zero-sum cal­cu­la­tion of multi­na­tion­al exploita­tion, which actu­al­ly encour­ages labor and envi­ron­men­tal abus­es. But since trade pol­i­cy is just one instru­ment by which glob­al resources are con­trolled, the emerg­ing trade reform debate on the left must extend beyond bean-count­ing man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs to con­sid­er ques­tions of redis­tri­b­u­tion of wealth and pow­er, how glob­al mar­kets should serve work­ers and com­mu­ni­ties and how to move gov­ern­ment pri­or­i­ties from growth at all costs toward mit­i­gat­ing inequality.

One poten­tial approach is to look out­side our trade net­works to sculpt glob­al accords based on human­i­tar­i­an and envi­ron­men­tal pri­or­i­ties. For instance, the Sier­ra Club’s new cli­mate-focused blue­print for trade par­al­lels the Paris cli­mate agree­ment — the broad set of inter­na­tion­al goals and stan­dards for emis­sions reduc­tions and cli­mate mit­i­ga­tion, which is now endan­gered because of Trump’s rejec­tion of car­bon-relat­ed regulation.

The plan demands that trade deals pro­mote transna­tion­al cli­mate reg­u­la­tion by respect­ing the sov­er­eign­ty of indi­vid­ual gov­ern­ments’ reg­u­la­to­ry sys­tems and pre­vent­ing fur­ther fos­sil-fuel exploita­tion by align[ing] trade poli­cies with cli­mate objec­tives.” In respect­ing both inter­na­tion­al accords and local envi­ron­men­tal author­i­ties, Michael Brune, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Sier­ra Club, explains, trade and cli­mate deals do not work at cross purposes.”

The envi­ron­men­tal move­ment should not, accord­ing to Brune, let the pres­i­dent-elect define the next trade mod­el.” Rather, pro­gres­sives should seize the moment of disruption.

The tem­plate for sta­tus quo deals like NAF­TA and the TPP was writ­ten decades ago, with the pri­ma­ry goal to boost the prof­its of multi­na­tion­al firms includ­ing big oil and gas cor­po­ra­tions, above all else,” Brune said. We must turn the sta­tus quo mod­el on its head.”

The cur­rent free-trade treaty régime typ­i­cal­ly incor­po­rates pub­lic-inter­est con­cerns, like the envi­ron­ment, in side agree­ments,” basi­cal­ly vol­un­tary accords. An eco­log­i­cal­ly-mind­ed trade frame­work would reverse the tra­di­tion­al cost-ben­e­fit analy­sis of mar­ket inte­gra­tion — for exam­ple, by requir­ing large pol­luters to fund a trade partner’s cli­mate-mit­i­ga­tion efforts or com­mit to pur­chas­ing local­ly-sourced solar panels.

Yet pro­mot­ing more cli­mate-friend­ly busi­ness deals won’t nec­es­sar­i­ly pro­tect work­ers and com­mu­ni­ties, which is why some labor groups seek to rede­fine the frame­work of labor law across the glob­al sup­ply chain. The Inter­na­tion­al Labour Orga­ni­za­tion cham­pi­ons a transna­tion­al reg­u­la­to­ry sys­tem that would estab­lish legal­ly-bind­ing labor stan­dards for com­pa­nies across bor­ders for fair wages, col­lec­tive-bar­gain­ing and orga­niz­ing rights and anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion protections.

A new social contract?

Beyond set­ting glob­al rules for nation­al gov­ern­ments, enforce­ment is anoth­er chal­lenge. One basic fea­ture of the left-ori­ent­ed alter­na­tive trade visions is a new inter­na­tion­al jus­tice sys­tem. The idea is to check neolib­er­al cor­po­rate pow­er on all pol­i­cy fronts, includ­ing trade, cli­mate and labor, under an ethos of transna­tion­al sol­i­dar­i­ty, not eco­nom­ic nation­al­ism. A supra­na­tion­al legal body would enforce uni­ver­sal human rights accords and replace the exist­ing investor-state dis­pute set­tle­ment mech­a­nisms — a lit­i­ga­tion sys­tem incor­po­rat­ed into many trade pacts to empow­er cor­po­ra­tions to chal­lenge envi­ron­men­tal, con­sumer and labor reg­u­la­tions that alleged­ly impinge on investors’ right” to trade freely.

In con­trast, under a social­ly-con­scious judi­cial struc­ture, cit­i­zens and civ­il soci­ety activists could peti­tion against for­eign investors and cor­po­ra­tions over rights abus­es: trib­al nations at Stand­ing Rock could cir­cum­vent U.S. courts and peti­tion to block the Dako­ta Access Pipeline project, per­haps. Or Bangladeshi gar­ment work­ers could sue Wal­mart for sourc­ing clothes in crum­bling, union-bust­ing fac­to­ries. A trans­par­ent tri­bunal rep­re­sent­ing the pub­lic inter­est would pro­tect com­mu­ni­ties and ecosys­tems rather than serve to fur­ther empow­er industry.

The over­ar­ch­ing ques­tion is whether glob­al jus­tice move­ments can press their gov­ern­ments and the cor­po­ra­tions that shape our economies to com­mit to shared social pri­or­i­ties. To that end, the Treaty Alliance, an inter­na­tion­al orga­ni­za­tion of civ­il soci­ety groups, recent­ly pre­sent­ed at a Unit­ed Nations con­fer­ence a bind­ing inter­na­tion­al instru­ment to address human rights abus­es com­mit­ted by transna­tion­al cor­po­ra­tions and oth­er busi­ness enter­prise.” The bind­ing treaty would pro­vide com­mu­ni­ty groups with the right to chal­lenge state and cor­po­rate oppres­sion, ensur­ing due process around the world. 

Though the coali­tion’s frame­work large­ly draws on the Unit­ed Nation’s long­stand­ing blue­print for human rights law, it would add legal teeth to a con­cept that has erod­ed under post­war capitalism.

In the Unit­ed States, for now, main­stream labor activists see few prospects for such a pol­i­cy under Trump. As Thea Lee, deputy chief of staff at the AFL-CIO explains, despite ris­ing activist momen­tum for a humane trade sys­tem, pro­mot­ing any bind­ing human-rights treaty before a ram­pant­ly plu­to­crat­ic admin­is­tra­tion doesn’t seem like a use­ful endeav­or giv­en the cur­rent pow­er structure.”

Yet the lim­it­ed polit­i­cal lat­i­tude in Wash­ing­ton may present a segue for a glob­al jus­tice move­ment to orga­nize out­side con­ven­tion­al bas­tions of pow­er. Long before the elec­tion, after all, from Occu­py’s inter­na­tion­al valence to the glob­al cli­mate jus­tice mobi­liza­tion, peo­ple’s move­ments were ris­ing up to demand cor­po­rate account­abil­i­ty, show­ing that democ­ra­cy and self-deter­mi­na­tion should, and do, start in the streets.

Trump’s win revealed a neolib­er­al estab­lish­ment crack­ing from with­in. But the ide­o­log­i­cal fis­sures exposed by Trump­ism have per­haps opened space for pro­gres­sives to swap free trade” for a new social contract.

Michelle Chen is a con­tribut­ing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at Dis­sent and a co-pro­duc­er of the Bela­bored” pod­cast. She stud­ies his­to­ry at the CUNY Grad­u­ate Cen­ter. She tweets at @meeshellchen.
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