Why Democracy is the Unspoken Issue in America's TPP Agenda


The so-far secret text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is unlikely to contain the word ‘democracy.’ Why has the United States, the great engine of democratisation, advanced a pact that is silent on a defining theme of its foreign policy? There are at least three answers.

1. The TPP doesn't endorse the legitimacy of some governments over others

Firstly, for a trade pact with twelve members of variable political character, its clauses could not be seen to endorse the legitimacy of some forms of government over others. Importantly, if the ultimate ambition is to have China join and play by its rules, the TPP needed to be silent on the democracy that so irks the Chinese Communist Party. The resort to highly technical, economic language poses no threat to democrat or autocrat alike. Every member nation can plausibly posture that it will make its people richer rather freer.

2. US foreign policy connects free trade with freedom

Secondly, the TPP is the latest in a long line of American-led economic agreements that have sought to advance democracy if not by stealth then by a belief in its universality. The TPP intends to advance democracy not as a demand but as an inevitabable outcome. An operating assumption of US foreign policy is the connection between free trade and freedom.

America, of course, enjoyed considerable success from democratisation by military occupation. Germany and Japan are the most impressive examples. US troops remain in Italy and South Korea. For a moment it seemed South Vietnam’s imperfect democracy might be saved from the depredations of communist regimes to its north by the force of US arms. But efforts to entrench democracy elsewhere were invariably non-military in nature.

Like the TPP, the Bretton Woods agreement of 1944 did not make democracy a condition of participation in it. ‘The economic [not political] health of every country is a proper matter of concern to all its neighbours,’ said Franklin Roosevelt. The International Monetary Fund, created in Bretton Woods, lends money to any regime, liberal or otherwise. But possibly no single trade pact has had a more decisive and lasting impact on the spread of democracy than this one agreed in New Hampshire.

The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (that grew from Bretton Woods in 1947) was silent on democracy. The World Trade Organisation (the GATT given institutional form in 1995) similarly avoids direct reference to democracy. ‘Transparency, non-discrimination, reciprocity, trade liberalisation, and economic development’ all feature – but not democracy.

China felt sufficiently comfortable to join the WTO in 2001. Indeed, it had spent much of the preceding decade agitating to do so.

The European Union, which began as a narrowly economic free trade area, does make democracy a condition of membership, but is more flexible when it comes to the democracy of the Union itself. By design, the project means to temper democratic sentiment and blunt populism by technocratic bureaucracy.

In a global order given shape by such agreements and institutions democracy has flourished. There were 20 democracies in 1945. Fifty years later there were over 90.

The character of the state championing this economic architecture has, of course, had an important impact on altering the political complexion of members within in it. It is no accident that the flourishing of democracy has occurred when the most powerful state in the system has been a democracy.

3. Obama has prioritised utility of engagement and formal agreement over that of hard power

A third reason the TPP omits ‘democracy’ is because the United States has lost faith in its capacity to spread it. For US President Barack Obama a central problem of US foreign policy has been military over-extension. His politics began to form during the Vietnam syndrome of the late 1970s and 1980s.

As president he ended the ‘dumb war’ in Iraq, left Libya as quickly as he entered, has so far avoided too much fighting in Syria, and has telegraphed the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan through 2016. He has prioritised domestic spending over defence.

President Obama's two immediate predecessors, neither of whom, of course, had to save America from as severe a recession as that handed to him, were much more comfortable connecting military power to the spread of democracy. Bill Clinton was decisive in the creation of a quasi-Muslim democracy in Kosovo in 1999 – having saved Bosnia-Herzegovina, another democracy, from Serbian destruction in 1995. Clinton certainly thought trade pacts were good for US prosperity and freedom as his championing of the WTO and NAFTA are evidence. But he was also prepared to make war, in the former-Yugoslavia, and to extend military alliances like NATO in the cause of the freedom and security of foreigners.

George W. Bush continued this theme, overthrowing two regimes, in Afghanistan and Iraq, that had terrible records for the treatment of their Muslim populations and attempted to create representative governments in their place.

Barack Obama has limited the levers of democratisation to trade pacts and to the TPP in particular. ‘Nation-building at home’ has become his priority. Faced with the opportunity to agitate for democracy in Iran in 2009 when mass street protests erupted, Obama instead chose to pursue a nuclear deal with the regime that crushed them.

The argument here is not that Obama is weak. Rather, because the post-9/11 wars weakened his nation he has had to find alternatives. Obama has advanced an analysis of geopolitics that prizes the utility of engagement and formal agreement over that of hard power. Shaping behaviour via international regimes (like the TPP, the Iranian nuclear deal, and ultimately, he anticipates, a binding climate treaty) works better than military interventionism. Russia’s territorial ambitions, he argues, is better countered by economic isolation instead of military containment.

This form of soft-power internationalism must of necessity downplay political values like democracy, as much as military campaigns must elevate them. Treaties over complex trade regulations are cosmopolitan of their very nature; wars require crude binaries (good vs evil, right vs wrong). In Obama’s analysis, a reliance on the latter in the statecraft of his immediate predecessors has necessitated an American retrenchment.

Because American foreign policy is now more narrowly economic than before, Obama is placing a number of foreign policy eggs in the TPP basket. The Partnership must give lasting form to his ‘pivot to Asia,’ nudge Chinese economic nationalism in a benign direction, cool Russian neo-imperialism, and be so successful that the Libyan and Syrian catastrophes are forgotten. How a partnership between twelve mostly already wealthy democracies can achieve such objectives remains an open question.


Image: Wall Street, New York. Credit: Dave Center, Flickr

Tim Lynch

Associate Professor, American politics, the University of Melbourne

Published Date
October 15, 2015