David Archer, MJIL Staff Member

Last week, the MJIL hosted a symposium that touched on several important issues in international law, including the landscape around trade agreements, with special focus on the GATT and WTO agreements. In observing the relative absence of development in global free trade talks since the Doha round, one participant observed that none of the major Presidential candidates support free trade agreements (with the exception of John Kasich, who, at 13% of the vote and 143 delegates after 30 primaries/caucuses, barely qualifies as a major candidate).

What this means heading into the next presidential administration is hard to say precisely, but at the very least it appears unlikely that the multilateral Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), what the Economist[1] calls the “biggest and deepest multilateral trade deal in years,” is unlikely to earn American sign off anytime soon. The TPP has been the signature trade agreement of the Obama Administration, but he has been unable to get it past as a recalcitrant Congress, where members of both parties have resisted approval for a variety of reasons. Secretary Hillary Clinton initially supported the TPP at earlier stages of its formation, but has stepped back from that support, saying that the agreement in its final form did not meet the “high bar” that she demanded.[2] Not coincidentally, her opponent Bernie Sanders has been an even more vociferous critic of trade agreements, including the TPP, calling it “disastrous.”[3]

The leading candidates on the Republican side, save for Kasich, have also voiced their disapproval, with Senator Ted Cruz committing to vote against it in the Senate[4], and Donald Trump calling it a “terrible deal.”[5]

All of these candidates appear, in principle, to have left room for themselves to walk back their opposition if certain vaguely articulated standards are met. But it is safe to say that the winds of free trade are not blowing in the direction of the TPP at the moment. The irony of this opposition is that polls do not show strong anti-trade sentiment in the U.S. In fact, recent Gallup polls have shown that 58% of Americans view foreign trade as an “opportunity” with just 34% regarding it as a “threat.” By some measures, pro-free-trade sentiment is at a several-decade high.[6] In this respect, the prospect of free trade agreements and TPP, in particular, may not be so dire after all, but maybe someone should let the candidates know which way the trade winds are blowing.

[1] http://www.economist.com/news/finance-economics/21671151-tpp-now-faces-hard-road-passage-national-legislatures-twelve-countries-strike-ambitious

[2] http://www.cnn.com/2015/10/07/politics/hillary-clinton-opposes-tpp/

[3] http://www.sanders.senate.gov/download/the-trans-pacific-trade-tpp-agreement-must-be-defeated?inline=file

[4] http://www.nationalreview.com/article/427539/ted-cruzs-protectionist-gamble-elaina-plott

[5] https://twitter.com/realdonaldtrump/status/651136309029834752

[6] http://www.gallup.com/poll/189620/americans-remain-upbeat-foreign-trade.aspx