It is not often that members of Congress get the opportunity to weigh in on international trade. But negotiations over fast-track authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in recent months have given elected representatives the chance to voice their opinions on how the government should engage with other countries financially. For example, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., released a report this week highlighting various promises that presidents have made over the years as they touted the labor benefits of so-called free-trade pacts like NAFTA, and pointing out how they fell flat in living up to those promises.
But Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders (a Vermont independent who is a presidential candidate) are among a tiny handful of lawmakers who are openly skeptical of the TPP. The battle lines over the secretive multilateral trade pact pit Warren and Sanders against President Obama, as well as most Republicans and Democrats. A day after dozens of Senate Democrats blocked debate on fast-track authority, most capitulated with a little arm-twisting and deal-making from Obama, and they voted to move forward with the debate.
For decades now, we have heard the claim that free trade is equivalent to freedom in general, that if corporations were allowed to freely do business around the world without having to contend with tariffs, regulations and other so-called trade barriers, it would naturally result in an equal playing field and prosperity for all.
But in fact, the rich have gotten richer, the poor poorer, and the planet has been thrown into peril. And while international trade does not manifest in lethal bombs, its impact on communities is similar to that of war, as detailed in a new book by Yash Tandon titled “Trade Is War: The West’s War on the World.” Tandon, who has decades of experience as a high-level negotiator at the World Trade Organization (WTO), said in an interview on “Uprising” that he agrees with Warren, and that she is “on the right side” on the TPP.
The fact that trade deals are negotiated behind closed doors speaks volumes. The draft of the TPP is so secret that one trade expert, Michael Wessel, who was privy to the details, wrote that “anyone who has read the text of the agreement could be jailed for disclosing its contents.” He does admit, however, that “[w]e should be very concerned about what’s hidden in this trade deal—and particularly how the Obama administration is keeping information secret even from those of us who are supposed to provide advice.”
Tandon also revealed that it is typical for WTO ministerials to make decisions in secret, in so-called “green rooms.” He explained, “I’ve seen it many times. On the last day of the conference, the speaker reads out a statement, presumably agreed to by consensus between the parties, and simply bangs on the table and says ‘agreed!’ and nobody objects ... there is no discussion. The process is totally flawed and conspiratorial.”
If free trade is indeed supposed to bring freedom, there should be no reason to conduct negotiations in secret. Defenders of free trade, conceding that in hindsight NAFTA’s benefits were overstated, now claim that the TPP is different. In an Op-Ed in The New York Times, Obama’s former chief of staff, William Daley, writes, “When [trade] barriers disappear, we prosper.” We are supposed to believe Daley, the same man who was tapped by President Clinton to “lead the fight to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement,” and who admits that “[t]he mistake we made in the 1990s was overestimating the potential of Nafta’s positive impact.”
Tandon reflects that, in actuality, “there has never, ever been free trade.” Going back through history, even “the so-called golden period of the English mercantile system in the 19th century was never free trade. It’s a myth that’s created.” Using the more euphemistic term of “theory” to describe it, Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz wrote that free trade is “based on numerous assumptions, many of which are simply wrong.”
In fact, the same nations that promote the ideology of free trade today—the U.S., Europe and Japan—created their wealth through protectionist policies that gave privilege to homegrown industries over foreign imports. Having gained economic dominance through such protectionism, they now spout free trade as a key to world economic equality.
Daley argued, in his defense of the TPP, that “[t]here is no path to middle-class prosperity without tearing down barriers to American exports.” Really? Here are multiple paths to middle-class prosperity that do not require leaps of faith in a theory based on many wrong assumptions: Make it extremely easy for Americans to form and join unions; pour money into the social safety net instead of into corporate subsidies; eliminate student debt; raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour and tie subsequent increases to inflation; strictly enforce all domestic labor and environmental standards; offer free, quality higher education in all states; and create a single-payer health care system. All of those direct, simple pathways to economic freedom have been proved to work in various capacities in countries such as Canada, Sweden, Norway and others. And none of them requires secret negotiations.
In fact, Ann Jones, writing from Oslo for the Los Angeles Times, said Americans are “crazy” to reject the Nordic model of socialism, which she described as “a balance of regulated capitalism, universal social welfare, political democracy and the highest levels of gender and economic equality on the planet.”
A Gallup Poll in March found that there is still strong support for what is termed “foreign trade” among Americans. The pollster asked the question, “Do you see foreign trade more as an opportunity for economic growth through increased U.S. exports or a threat to the economy from foreign imports?” Of those identifying as Democrats, 61 percent saw it as an “opportunity,” as did 51 percent of Republicans. Tandon responded that such results are not surprising, given that “[c]orporations have penetrated policy-making structures within practically every state in the world.” A case in point is Daley, who was a managing partner at Argentière Capital AG before he crafted government trade policy to favor the likes of his former employer.
As the title of his book bluntly states, Tandon maintains that “trade is war.” He explained that “over the last 500 years, with the emergence of capitalism as a global system, that’s when trade became war. England went to Africa and started colonizing Africa.” The same happened when Britain traded with India through the East India Co., kicking off centuries of colonialism, and when Britain traded with China, leading to the Opium Wars. Tandon concludes that history shows that trade has resulted in “unmitigated, relentless war.”
Tandon is not against trade in general. After all, humans have traded goods and services since the beginning of recorded history. “Trade does not have to mean war,” he says, but in the current political discourse, policies favoring corporate elites over the rest of us are what passes for free trade.
While trade pacts have had disastrous effects on U.S. workers, globally and historically even worse examples abound. Today, Western trade policies in Africa have resulted in inequities of bizarre proportions. Across the continent, nations that once had strong agricultural traditions are now importing more food than they produce. Citing an example that illustrates the ludicrous outcome of free trade in his own country of Uganda, Tandon told me, “If you go to my country, you will find in the shops chicken legs from Belgium! We have free-range chickens all over the country but they can’t compete against imported chicken, which is subsidized by Belgium.” When seen through such a lens, trade is indeed a war. And, like war, it creates refugees. The poverty resulting from free trade is driving migration to Europe through the northern African coastal state of Libya, and many thousands of migrants are dying on their journey across the Mediterranean Sea.
But as in most wars, there are two sides. Corporate backers of free-trade policies have led a highly successful propaganda effort to equate trade with freedom. But in likening trade to war, ordinary people the world over are pushing back. In real terms, the WTO has suffered many setbacks, thanks to the sustained efforts of activists and even governments of some developing nations. Similarly, the TPP has strong popular opposition in the U.S., as well as among the populations of the dozen or so other countries involved. Tandon calls for “nonviolent guerilla warfare” against the violence of Western-imposed trade deals. In that case, anti-trade activists are the necessary foot soldiers in this global battle against so-called free trade.