TPP, democracy and development

The negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership should force a serious discussion of the goals of U.S. bilateral development assistance in the region. As U.S. policy invests more to promote trade integration and link it to global geo-strategic goals, it's time to think about how to recast development assistance to help countries participate and compete in these new trade agreements.


  • Christopher Sabatini

    Dr. Christopher Sabatini, is a senior fellow for Latin America at Chatham House, and was formerly a lecturer in the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University. Chris is also on the advisory boards of Harvard University’s LASPAU, the Advisory Committee for Human Rights Watch's Americas Division, and of the Inter-American Foundation. He is also an HFX Fellow at the Halifax International Security Forum. He is a frequent contributor to policy journals and newspapers and appears in the media and on panels on issues related to Latin America and foreign policy. Chris has testified multiple times before the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. In 2015, Chris founded and directed a new research non-profit, Global Americas and edited its news and opinion website. From 2005 to 2014 Chris was senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas (AS/COA) and the founder and editor-in-chief of the hemispheric policy magazine Americas Quarterly (AQ). At the AS/COA, Dr. Sabatini chaired the organization’s rule of law and Cuba working groups. Prior to that, he was director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the National Endowment for Democracy, and a diplomacy fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, working at the US Agency for International Development’s Center for Democracy and Governance. He provides regular interviews for major media outlets, and has a PhD in Government from the University of Virginia.

The mega, cross-regional trade agreement Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)—that will bring together 11 countries representing 30 percent of global GDP—offers the possibility of remaking the world economy and geo-strategic alliances. But it is not without its critics, ranging from those who argue that the negotiations are too secret (implying some sort of global plutocratic plot) to those who fear it is an unnecessary and potentially futile challenge to China.

The TPP naysayers are an interesting alliance, since many of those who cite the secrecy of the negotiations are also those who complain about international competition from China’s unfair labor practices.

The truth is their attention and vitriol would be better directed to addressing the development implications of a potential TPP agreement rather than trying to torpedo it.

There is no reason to believe that closed-door negotiations are incompatible or at odds with democratic values. In fact, there is a long, honored and successful tradition of negotiations conducted in secret. Some 25 years ago, one of the most prominent democracy theorists, Giovani Sartori, asserted—correctly—in The Theory of Democracy Revisited that some negotiation processes require secrecy to achieve the levels of concessions that are necessary for achieving democratic consensus. One need only watch the three-ring circus of performative speeches by U.S. members of Congress on C-SPAN to realize that Sartori may have been on to something long before the advent of cable television.

Unfortunately, traditional opponents of free trade are complaining about the secrecy of the TPP negotiations. But trade negotiations—as with arms control negotiations or treaty negotiations (Iran anyone?) that involve compromise—have always been secret. And why shouldn’t they be? Can you imagine the clusterf*** that would ensue if governments gave everyone claiming a stake in the negotiations an open seat at the table? The inevitable result would be media leaks, mobilization of constituents (pro and con), posturing, and gridlock in the midst of interminable too-ing and fro-ing of negotiator positions.

That’s not to say that what comes out of the TPP negotiations shouldn’t be open for debate, discussion and potential rejection. Of course it should be. But let’s let the negotiators set the course and then put a potential deal up for a debate and vote.

Aid for trade

Whatever the outcome of the negotiations and any potential votes, this should be a time to reconsider U.S.development strategy.

For more than a decade now, the mantra has been “trade not aid.” Fair enough, though free trade alone is not the path out of the periphery to the developed core. Notwithstanding, there is a huge under-explored potential to combine the U.S.’s development agenda with its trade policy.

Issues that have traditionally driven the U.S. bilateral development agenda—education, children’s health, population, community development, civil society and decentralization—are increasingly being overtaken by geopolitics and trade discussions.

For countries seeking to integrate themselves into the modern global economy—particularly those now participating in the TPP negotiations and others willing to join the movement—development means building the institutional infrastructure and capacity to take advantage of free trade. This, in turn, involves investing in and improving education and focusing on the physical infrastructure needed for economic integration into the global market. It also means providing support to build the capacity of state institutions to negotiate and ultimately regulate their countries’ insertion into the world economy, strengthening links between rural and export-oriented economies, and focusing on other areas of industrial development and governance. Such activities transcend traditional notions of development but are essential for the emergence and success of development through trade integration.

For traditionalists, the urgent and necessary shift from a grassroots to a more trade-oriented view of development will require a wrenching change in thinking.

To give but one example, the 2014 USAID program in Peru—one of the central countries involved in the TPP discussions—is focused on anti-narcotics and the improvement of public services and sustainable management of resources in the Amazon Basin. Now I realize that all three of these are driven by the U.S.’s anti-narcotics policy, but really shouldn’t the U.S.’s development agenda in one of the more economically and socially segregated countries in the region prepare it for the greatest modern-day U.S. foreign policy initiative?

The need is all the more stark when you realize that only around 10 percent of Peru’s roads are paved. How do we expect rural producers to get their goods to market and understand and respond to global (or TPP) market signals when this huge breach between Peru’s modern and traditional economy remains? Answering those institutional, communicational, and capacity challenges is key not just to Peru’s success in TPP but ultimately the U.S.’s long-term anti-narcotics goals.

Do countries like Peru and others vying to join the global economy require a larger infusion of bilateral support? Yes. But as we move closer to TPP approval, the U.S.’s global foreign policy goals and regional development challenges are converging. This confluence requires re-orienting our regional development agenda away from more traditional notions of development to U.S.’s foreign policy goals and to more modern notions of integrated, global development.

Sure, the traditional challenges of inequality, unequal access to opportunity and low quality education remain. However, these challenges should be reframed and considered as part of an overall strategy to assisting TPP and other interested countries enter into the global economy and remain competitive.

Otherwise, U.S. taxpayers risk funding only palliatives that address real-world issues of poverty that not only fail to create stepping stones into long-term pathways out of the periphery but are also out of step with the U.S.’s global foreign policy goals.

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