By John Adams, Brigadier General (Retired) for The Hill
The Republican and Democratic conventions showcased an extraordinarily rare point of bipartisan consensus: stopping the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Yet, in the dog days of summer, Americans have received a rude awakening that the unpopular 12-nation trade deal is still on the table. This past Friday, President Obama put Congress on notice that a vote on TPP is coming in the lame duck period after the election.
While the President recently conceded that TPP critics are “coming from a sincere concern about the position of workers and wages in this country,” he’s also been hammering home a familiar and often-unchallenged fallback case for trade agreements: that TPP is essential for foreign policy and national security priorities.
As a retired Brigadier General and 30-year veteran of the U.S. Army, I’ve long considered arguments for trade deals as national security strategies, including arguments for the TPP specifically as a “way to keep the peace in the Pacific” and counter China as it “flexes its economic and military muscle.” While I respect President Obama and the pact’s military backers, I believe these arguments miss a crucial point: By facilitating the further offshoring of America’s manufacturing base, the trade pact would actually undermine America’s military readiness and global economic standing. TPP would hurt our national security interests more than it would help.
In 2013, the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board put forward a remarkable report describing one of the most significant but little-recognized threats to US security: deindustrialization. The report argued that the loss of domestic U.S. manufacturing facilities has not only reduced U.S. living standards but also compromised U.S. technology leadership “by enabling new players to learn a technology and then gain the capability to improve on it.” The report explained that the offshoring of U.S. manufacturing presents a particularly dangerous threat to U.S. military readiness through the “compromise of the supply chain for key weapons systems components.”
I’ve seen these offshoring risks firsthand.
Our military is now shockingly vulnerable to major disruptions in the supply chain, including from substandard manufacturing practices, natural disasters, and price gouging by foreign nations. Poor manufacturing practices in offshore factories lead to problem-plagued products, and foreign producers—acting on the basis of their own military or economic interests—can sharply raise prices or reduce or stop sales to the United States.
The link between TPP and this kind of offshoring has been well-established. The proposed deal would not only repeat but magnify the mistakes of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), offering extraordinary privileges to companies that move operations overseas. Just this spring, an official U.S. government study by the International Trade Commission noted that the pact would further gut the U.S. manufacturing sector. This, following the loss of 5 million manufacturing jobs since 2000, is a perilous proposition.
Foreign policy and national security have long been the arguments of last resort for backers of controversial trade deals. A quarter century ago, we were warned that, unless NAFTA and deals with eight Latin American nations were enacted, China would come to dominate trade in the hemisphere. NAFTA passed, but America’s share of goods imported by Mexico fell, while China’s share rose by a staggering 2,600 percent. Today, following the implementation of several additional major trade deals, we’re still waiting for China to comply with its WTO commitments, and we’re still waiting for progress in dealing with our astronomical trade deficit.
While the TPP’s backers present our choice as one of trade versus protectionism, this couldn’t be further from the truth. We already have free trade agreements with the six TPP countries that account for more than 80 percent of the promised trade. Because all TPP nations are currently members of the World Trade Organization, their tariffs have already been cut to minimal levels.
Of TPP’s 30 chapters, only six deal with traditional trade issues. The rest deal primarily with special privileges for multinational corporations and investors—like establishing the rights of companies to sue governments for cash compensation over the impacts of health and safety regulations. These dominant features of the TPP would vastly expand the rights of multinational firms that do not necessarily represent America’s national interests.
Critics of the TPP come from both parties in Congress—and from the business, labor, environmental, consumer, human rights, and defense communities. These diverse players are not opposed to trade. Rather, most simply want a different trade model that facilitates the worthy goal of global engagement without shortchanging American workers, policymaking prerogatives, and national security capacities.
While the Obama Administration has been wise to shift our defense and diplomatic attention towards the Asia-Pacific region, it’s now time for a “pivot” in our approach to trade.
Brigadier General (Retired) John Adams served more than thirty years in command and staff assignments as an Army Aviator, Military Intelligence Officer, and Foreign Area Officer in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.