People say a picture is worth a thousand words. A photo  released by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative last week is worth at least two.
It shows Carol Guthrie, an American trade diplomat, meeting with what her office euphemistically calls “key trade stakeholders.” They are in fact some of the bitterest enemies of global trade: the AFL-CIO, the Sierra Club, the Citizens Trade Campaign, and the Texas Fair Trade Coalition.
The confab took place in Dallas, which is now hosting the 12th round of Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks, scheduled to conclude on Friday.
The TPP is a potential trade alliance that would make it easier for members to buy and sell goods and services. Negotiations currently involve nine countries: the United States, Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam.
A deal could be reached by the end of this year. It would provide a big boost to our economy, creating thousands of jobs right away. Canada and Mexico would like to join TPP, which would make the pact even better. And if Japan jumps in–it has given mixed signals about its interest–the benefits would become even more apparent, especially for American farmers, who enjoy only limited access to Japanese markets.
The White House has made TPP central to its trade strategy, with President Obama touting its advantages in his last two State of the Union addresses. He’s right to do so: TPP is an economic-stimulus package that doesn’t require the federal government to spend more money (and go deeper into debt). It simply creates opportunities for American businesses to reach customers in other countries.
The protectionists despise it. They prefer a policy of economic isolationism, in which the federal government makes sure that special-interest groups with political connections don’t have to deal with the international competition that so many ordinary American workers must face every day.
So why did Guthrie sit down with some of America’s most aggressive foes of free trade? Perhaps it was an honest effort to make nice–an open-minded act of civility.
If so, it would be nice to see the gesture reciprocated. Instead, the groups she courted have declared war on TPP. The website of the Texas Fair Trade Coalition warns of “a back-room deal that enriches the global 1% at the expense of the economy, the environment, family farms, public health, and democracy itself.” The Citizens Trade Campaign has put out a series of contentious press releases that claim TPP will do everything from hurt public health to accelerate global warming.
Over the weekend, these so-called stakeholders joined the Occupy Wall Street movement in sponsoring a rally to complain about the TPP. Protestors also disrupted a reception and tried to present a phony award to Guthrie’s boss, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, naming him a “corporate tool.”
The critics of TPP say that the negotiations are not sufficiently transparent. They’re correct, but not in the way they imagine. Americans who want information about TPP can find plenty, from fact sheets at the USTR website to videos by activists who want the talks to fall apart. It’s all pretty easy to track down.
Yet one issue deserves more attention, especially from the American media: expansion.
Although TPP would be a success if no more than the nine entities currently involved in the talks were to strike a deal, enlarging it to include Canada and Mexico and possibly even Japan would make it even more lucrative.
Yet the White House appears cool to this excellent idea. When President Obama hosted Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Felipe Calderon at the White House last month, the result was, in the words of Investor’s Business Daily, “a diplomatic disaster.” Much of the American press has failed to report on how President Obama has aggravated our NAFTA allies in a series of trade squabbles, most recently over a proposed oil pipeline between Alberta and the United States.
Perhaps our trade diplomats should spend less time posing for photo-ops with their critics and more time with their colleagues from Canada and Mexico, making TPP as big and strong as it should be.
Dean Kleckner serves as Chairman of the Board for Truth About Trade & Technology www.truthabouttrade.org .