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Whatever the terms agreed by the 12 trade ministers who signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the text is unlikely to include the word ‘democracy’. Reuters/USTR Office

Why democracy is the unspoken issue in America’s TPP agenda

The so-far-secret text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) will likely not 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.

One answer is narrowly instrumental. For a trade pact with 12 members of variable political character to cohere, its clauses need to be neutral and non-judgemental. 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. Every leader can plausibly posture that it will make the nation’s people more prosperous rather than more free.

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

America enjoyed considerable success from democratisation by military occupation. Germany and Japan are the most impressive examples. US troops remain in Italy and South Korea.

But most efforts to entrench democracy elsewhere were non-military in nature.

Like the TPP, the Bretton Woods agreement of 1944 did not make democracy a condition of participation. “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 trade pact has had a more decisive and lasting impact on the spread of democracy.

The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (the GATT, which grew from Bretton Woods in 1947) was silent on democracy. The World Trade Organisation (the WTO – the GATT given institutional form in 1995) similarly avoids direct reference to democracy. China felt sufficiently comfortable to join the WTO in 2001.

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 more than 90.

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

Losing confidence in democracy advocacy

A third reason the TPP omits “democracy” is because the US has lost faith in its capacity to spread it. For President Barack Obama a central problem of US foreign policy has been military over-extension.

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.

America’s military over-reach under his predecessors has left Barack Obama looking for different means to advance the US agenda. EPA/Olivier Douliery

Obama’s two immediate predecessors – neither of whom had to save the US from as severe a recession as that handed to Obama – 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 good for US prosperity and freedom, as his championing of the WTO and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) shows. 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 of maltreating their Muslim populations. The US attempted to create representative governments in their place.

Obama has limited the levers of democratisation to trade pacts and to the TPP in particular. Faced with the opportunity to agitate for democracy in Iran in 2009 when mass street protests erupted, Obama instead pursued a nuclear deal with the regime that crushed them.

US switches to soft power

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 revanchism, Obama argues, are 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. Complex trade treaties are necessarily cosmopolitan; wars require crude binaries (good vs evil, right vs wrong). In Obama’s analysis, a reliance on this kind of rhetoric in the statecraft of his immediate predecessors has necessitated an American retrenchment.

Because America’s policy approach is more narrowly economic than before, Obama is placing a number of foreign policy eggs in the TPP basket. It must give lasting form to his “pivot to Asia”, nudge Chinese economic nationalism in a benign direction, cool Russian neoimperialism and be so successful that the Libyan and Syrian catastrophes are forgotten. How a partnership between 12 mostly already wealthy democracies can achieve such objectives remains an open question.

This article was co-published with

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