Looming Trade Agreement Presents Threats That Are Little NoticedBy Thomas D. Elias @ 9:00 AM June 28, 2012
Warnings come from time to time from the far right quarters of American politics that something called the “Trilateral Commission” might be a threat to America’s hard-won independence.
But the Trilateral Commission, a non-governmental, non-partisan international discussion group, founded in 1973 by financier and philanthropist David Rockefeller, to foster closer cooperation among this country, Europe and Japan, is a paper tiger at worst, no threat to anyone.
Meanwhile, the North American Free Trade Agreement, signed in 1994 by President Bill Clinton and largely negotiated by his predecessor, the first President George Bush, has made some real dents in American sovereignty. Among other things, it has allowed in polluting and questionably safe trucks from Mexico and subjected some federal, state and local decisions to vetoes by an international tribunal of lawyer/judges from the member countries, the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Two examples of recent actions by that tribunal: A ruling against U.S. dolphin-safe tuna labeling and another holding that anti-teen smoking efforts can’t proceed because they impede free trade.
Now another NAFTA-like agreement is in the works, this time with trading partners around the Pacific Rim, and it threatens the same kinds of infringements on U.S. sovereignty.
Arguably, NAFTA has produced jobs both here and in the other two nations. But a case can be made for its having sent manufacturing jobs out of the United States, as there are no longer tariffs on goods from those countries, which range from lumber and winter peaches to cars, clothing, toys and microwave ovens.
Anytime this country considers more NAFTA-style tariff-busting agreements, they should get robust national debate. But neither President Obama nor his Republican challenger Mitt Romney is saying much these days about the nascent Trans-Pacific Partnership.
If finalized, this pact would first bring Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam into special relationships with this country. Canada, Mexico and Japan also are interested.
There are some serious questions about an agreement involving some of these countries, from the openly anti-Semitic government policies of Malaysia to the brutality of the justice system in Singapore and the communism of Vietnam.
None of these topics, though, figures to be brought up as negotiators from all those nations meet with U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk in San Diego between next Monday and July 12.
Their discussions mostly have been kept secret through several years of negotiating. Documents leaked by the unusual bipartisan combination of Democratic U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Republican Congressman Darrell Issa of San Diego County reveal the Pacific pact would include a court much like NAFTA’s tribunal. Wyden has introduced legislation requiring full disclosure of any such arrangement, while Issa posted to his website a document that proposed giving the tribunal of lawyers from member countries the power to override environmental, labor and financial laws in each member country.
In short, if this document became part of an eventual agreement, corporations could increase drug prices and impede drug availability, pollute rivers and streams, violate zoning laws and spew forth unlimited air pollution – all on the say-so of an international tribunal empowered to overturn even decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court.
That’s a threat to national sovereignty, for sure, and a much more serious one than anything the powerless Trilateral Commission has ever done. Of course, intrusions on sovereignty could go in many directions: U.S. corporations would likely take advantage of the same new quasi-court to bulldoze rain forests and run roughshod over local protections in other member countries.
With all this now being seriously debated at the top levels of American and international trade policy-making, and the debate forum moving to California, the Presidential candidates nevertheless remain silent.
It’s important to follow the money to understand why. Super PACs indulging in unlimited spending for both Romney and Obama already have taken tens of millions from corporations that might benefit if a Trans-Pacific Partnership came into being under these terms, which – like NAFTA – favor profits over all other causes.
Obama’s administration predictably downplays such concerns. “This administration is committed to ensuring strong environmental, public health and safety laws,” said a spokesman for Kirk. “Nothing in our Trans-Pacific Partnership…proposal could impair our government’s ability to pursue legitimate, non-discriminatory public interest regulation.”
Of course, words like “legitimate” and “non-discriminatory” would be open to interpretation by the international tribunal. Given the way simpler words like “is” have sometimes been parsed in American courts, that means almost anything can happen.
All of which makes it high time for this possible new trade agreement to become prominent fodder for campaign debate, whether the candidates like it or not. U.S. sovereignty is already compromised and whether that should be permitted to go even farther is as significant as a public policy question can get.
Mr. Elias may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government's Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net