As the Beltway sorts out the implications of Joe Biden’s VP pick, the trade world enjoys the benefit of having Kamala Harris’ views on the new NAFTA. While traditional critics of trade deals such as Senators Sherrod Brown, Jeff Merkley, and Elizabeth Warren voted for the agreement on the strength of its new labor provisions, Harris voted against it because its environmental rules were flawed, including the failure to address climate change.
It seems a lifetime ago, but in 2015 House Republicans managed to vote through an amendment to Trade Promotion Authority that would have prohibited the United States from making climate change commitments in trade agreements. This language was eventually modifed in conference so that it less blatantly attacks efforts to address climate change, while attacking it all the same:
to ensure that trade agreements do not establish obligations for the United States regarding greenhouse gas emissions measures, including obligations that require changes to United States laws or regulations or that would affect the implementation of such laws or regulations, other than those fulfilling the other negotiating objectives in this section.
Fortunately, TPA expires in 2021.
Beyond that, though, Harris’ NAFTA vote means it would also be difficult for any Biden Administration to negotiate agreements that do not actually address climate change. Democrats complained that one of the major flaws of the TPP environment provisions is too much reliance on happy talk about doing stuff on the environment, with too few concrete obligations. TPP calls for “cooperation” on transitioning to a “low-emissions” economy, but contains no hard commitments — just a pledge to chit-chat. This is the kind of language that is designed to allow these agreements to be marketed as “progressive” when they are not.
With respect to the new NAFTA, thanks to Democratic control of the House, the agreement contains strengthened environmental obligations as compared to TPP – and the strengths of the agreement only grew after Speaker Pelosi was done reworking it. The new NAFTA doesn’t contain the fluffy language on “low-emissions” cooperation, but House Democrats pronounced their verdict on that language by not wasting chits on it. Instead, they included a provision that allows the list of enforceable multilateral agreements to be expanded – meaning the Paris Agreement could be added to the list, and climate change commitments would be enforceable.
For those who continue to believe that, if Biden wins, TPP should be revived after a “suitable time” of adhering to his pledge to pause trade deals, it’s important to appreciate Harris’ NAFTA vote: if she didn’t think the new NAFTA was good enough, she can’t think TPP is good enough. And while people say “oh yeah, we’ll just renegotiate that,” all I can say is: good luck to you. It isn’t that the Obama Administration lacked ambition on the environment. This “green paper” on conservation, for example, was terrific for its time.
But our allies didn’t want to do it. They don’t want enforceable rules on the environment. And so they expect the United States to “pay” for commitments that are in our allies’ own interest.
Don’t take my word for it. You can see the lack of interest by surveying the agreements TPP allies have with countries other than the United States.
Canadian trade negotiators, freed from the shackles of U.S. pressure to do something real, agreed to this arrangement with their equally faux-progressive European counterparts:
For any dispute that arises under this Chapter, the Parties shall only have recourse to the rules and procedures provided for in this Chapter.
Translation: chit-chat, not sanctions.
How about Japan and the EU? Nope:
In the event of disagreement between the Parties on any matter regarding the interpretation or application of this Chapter, the Parties shall only have recourse to the procedures set out in this Article and Article 16.18. The provisions of this Chapter shall not be subject to dispute settlement under Chapter 21.
How about New Zealand? No luck there, either. Their deal with China has the antediluvian “environmental side agreement” model that American Republicans now reject. Welcome, NAFTA 1.0!
Ok, ok. That’s unfair. It’s a deal with China, an economy based on coal-fired electricity. Of course ambitions were low. (Option: don’t do the deal.)
Let’s look instead at the New Zealand/ Korea agreement. Each of them agreed with the United States to enforceable environmental rules. Surely they agreed to them with each other? Not so fast:
Neither Party shall have recourse to dispute settlement under this Agreement for any matter arising under this Chapter.
It’s almost like our allies don’t really want to do it!
The thinking in the national security community is that we have to do these agreements because they’re very important to our allies as a show of U.S. regional commitment. But if a trade agreement with the United States is that important to our allies, shouldn’t they be falling all over themselves to agree to provisions like those on the environment, which inherently require collective action?
And if they aren’t, isn’t it a bit of a clue that these agreements really aren’t about “alliances” at all?
August 13, 2020