Condemned To Everlasting Change

There’re a lot of nuances and compromise that go into international trade deals, but there comes a point when the compromise of trade becomes illogical. Trade deals have been around for as long as there have been sovereign nations. With the advent of globalisation, and the changing face of international commerce following WWII, trade deals became the way forward. There’s been a lot of talk recently about trade deals, and how they effect global commerce, specifically in relation to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The TPP falls under the category of illogical trade…a trade deal so focused on the political, it forgets the face of the humans…and the one things trade has always been about, is the prosperity of the people.

The first recorded trade deals (that have survived) date back to the 19th century BCE. Throughout the ancient world, as people spread, so did goods, and good required trade. As cultures left native lands, so did the goods related to those cultures. The basic of idea of supply and demand economics can be seen as far back as 2nd century BCE, and international ports and trade routes began springing up to accommodate this. By the 2nd century CE, various trading leagues begin competing for the rights to trade with entire countries…in 1157 the Hanseatic League (a merchant guild) gained the market rights to trade in England, and competition in the seaport of Quanzhou during the Song Dynasty often resulted in violence. During the 17th century, merchant companies (like the East India Company) were created, and forts complete with soldiers and weapons were strategic placed along trade routes. During the age of exploration, trade routes were expanded to include newly conquered lands (the most famous of which is the Triangle Trade), brining goods and religion along with settlers.

By the end of the 18th century, the rise of competitive free trade had brought about the end of most trading companies (the EIC went bankrupt in 1799), and nations were creating trade deals with each other for manufactured goods (textiles, and then production goods after the Industrial Revolution) and natural resources. By the mid-19th century, wars were happening over bans of goods (China and opium), and the first international free-trade agreement was signed in 1860, the Cobden-Chevalier Treaty between UK and France, which created a domino effect as other European nations signed their own trade agreements.

Before the post-war world, trade agreements between nations didn’t stress things like human rights, or labour laws, or environmental protection…in fact, until the 20th century most nations didn’t even have national laws related to any of the above. After WWII, a war many people argued was partially caused by lack of free trade and goods stifling after WWI, and particularly during the depression, an agreement was made between 23 nations which set out the rules relating to international trade and tariffs. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that human rights, environmental protection, and labour laws ended up on the negotiating table, and in most instances those were things that had to be compromised away.

By the mid-1980s, the idea that how a country treats its own citizens should be something included in international trade agreements was used as a negotiating tactic. Several international trade deals fell through because some countries refused to be held to the standards of the western world in regards to human rights and labour laws. Trade deals through the last decade of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st started focusing on human rights, environmental protection, and labour laws. However, exceptions were made in the name of political cooperation which allowed nations to bypass these rules and keep lucrative trade deals, and oftentimes (as is the case with NAFTA) labour and environmental provisions simply aren’t enforced.

The TPP is a perfect example of political compromise to the detriment of human rights and environmental protection. During the post-negotiations for TPP, the US Senate qualified language that required all countries to meet specific standards on human trafficking, incredibly important since 6 of the 12 TPP nations currently fall on both UN and Amnesty International watch lists for human trafficking. The standards, however, were so low that only one nation, Malaysia, fell outside the parameters for inclusion. Instead of declaring that Malaysia was no longer a TPP country until it could clean up its corruption, and deal with human trafficking, the US State Department pressed, and the US government upgraded Malaysia’s rating so that it now fell within acceptable standards. Malaysia didn’t change, or deal with, anything…instead, the desire for a pacific trade deal similar to the EU’s single market was so strong that foundations of human rights were ignored in favour of money. The TPP also allows factories in Vietnam to continue inhumane labour practices, Malaysia to continue to keep forced and child labour legal, and Thailand and Indonesia don’t have to outlaw slavery in fishing.

The TPP, which was supposed to address climate issues in concordance with the Paris Climate Agreement, even put trade ahead of the planet. The TPP includes a loophole which would allow companies to sue any nation that enact laws which limit fossil fuel extraction (like fracking, or coal mining) or enact laws limiting carbon emissions if those laws interfere with margin of profit. Trade deals like the TPP could establish a precedent in relation to environmental protections, but instead, those protections were negotiated away in favour of political capital.

Here’s the other problem with the TPP: it was negotiated entirely in secret. Lack of transparency in anything governmental isn’t good, but when you’re talking about a massive trade deal that equals around 40% of the world’s economic output, it’s catastrophic. It’s easy to compromise on things like the environment, human trafficking, labour laws, etc, when no one’s watching.

Historically, trade followed the movement of cultures, introduced goods we’d never seen (the Spice Trade, the Incense Route), and helped build empires. Trade is good, and has the ability to foster international relationships, change the course of human history, end human suffering, and help a struggling nation find its feet in a global marketplace. But trade that ignores the plight of humans, and the planet, in favour of global coffers is not good trade. A Trans-Pacific trade deal, much like the EU’s single market, has the potential for far reaching global benefits…and when a trade deal which addresses the issues of environmental destruction, human trafficking, human rights violations, and economic stability is reached, it could change the path to the future. The TPP, however, isn’t that trade deal, and until the nations involved accept the issues which have, ultimately, resulted in the end of the TPP, an equitable, game changing, globally envious, Trans-Pacific Partnership will never be achieved.

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