The way to begin any discussion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership is with a simple question: Where does this sweeping global trade deal rest power—with the people and their elected representatives in the United States and 11 other Pacific Rim countries, or with the multinational corporations that have been empowered by every previous trade deal of this kind?
The answer, if history is any indication, and if reports on the the secretive agreement are accurate, is that the power will rest with the corporations.
“The deal announced [Monday] is the result of negotiations between corporate interests and trade representatives, which ignored the voices of working families in all twelve countries,” announced Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ) and Keith Ellison (D-MN). “While details are still emerging, we are concerned the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) will destroy jobs and depress wages, threaten health and safety standards, harm our air, land and water, and make it harder for patients to access life-saving drugs.”
Grijalva and Ellison were right to cite the economic and environmental concerns. But they were even more right to focus on concerns about how the TPP fails to “protect nationhood rights by prohibiting special corporate courts through Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions.” No matter what claims are made regarding side deals and “progressive” language, a trade agreement that allows secretive “dispute resolution” along lines that overwhelmingly favor multinational corporations undermines rather than strengthens worker rights and environmental protections.
There is a lot that is wrong with the “free-trade” model embraced by Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama. But nothing is so wrong as the little-covered but hugely important threat to democracy itself in the form of Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions, which Public Citizen says “formally prioritize corporate rights over the right of governments to regulate and the sovereign right of nations to govern their own affairs.”
As Communications Workers of America President Chris Shelton warned Monday after the announcement of the agreement, the inclusion of ISDS provisions represents “a corporate dream but a nightmare for those of us on Main Street.”
A New York Times report published Monday explained that the TPP agreement “would overhaul special tribunals that handle trade disputes between businesses and participating nations” in response to “widespread criticisms that the Investor-State Dispute Settlement panels favor businesses and interfere with nations’ efforts to pass rules safeguarding public health and safety.” The “overhaul” involves what the Times referred to as “a code of conduct [that] would govern lawyers selected for arbitration panels.” There’s also a “carve out” to address abuses by “Big Tobacco.” That’s fine; but the problem goes far beyond lawyers, and far beyond the wrongdoing of one industry. The problem goes to the heart of the matter of whether special tribunals, which exist to advance free trade, will have the power to help multinational corporations circumvent or undermine local laws.