If there’s one thing the Ukraine crisis has taught us, it’s that the economic realm and geopolitical realm are virtually inseparable in world politics. While most have claimed that Western sanctions have left Putin undeterred, the same does not hold true for your international bankers and profit-loyal businessmen. The highly mobile capital of the 21st century in and of itself has tied Russia’s military actions with heavy economic consequences that have included a sinking ruble, a sliding Russian stock market, and a rush of Russian-housed cash fleeting for the exits.
Remi Piet, Assistant Professor at Qatar University, summed it up rather nicely by saying:
“If the sound of boots on the ground is still very real in Crimea, the Ukrainian conflict proved the incapacity of countries to engage in military conflict without being vulnerable to exogenous economic forces or having to suffer the consequences of capital flight and currency exchange rate fluctuations.”
So it’s fairly surprising then that little is being said about the national security interests at stake when talking about the US trade agenda. Because behind the veil of criticisms spawned by “green” activists and labor groups, agreements like TTP and TTIP are intended to enhance political and diplomatic ties—not just economic ones.
This is why Thomas McLarty, a former White House Chief of Staff under the Clinton Administration, has written,
“Fundamentally, trade is about more than economics. It has political and diplomatic impact. It is a matter of leadership and values. Ask protesters in Ukraine, whose uprising was sparked by the former government’s scuttling of a trade deal with the European Union. The Trans-Pacific Partnership has rightly been described as the backbone of the Obama administration’s strategic “pivot” to Asia.”
Back in 2002, former USTR Robert Zoellick said too that, “America’s trade policies are connected to our broader economic, political, and security aims,” and that, “to be sustainable at home, our trade strategy needs to be aligned with America’s values and aspirations—as well as with our economic interests.”
It’s easy to overlook the sometimes invisible geopolitical and strategic considerations that lie in trade negotiations—after all, they’re called things like “free trade agreements” and “investment partnerships”, not “economic alliances” or “security frats”. But their economic benefits certainly do spill over into the workings of US national security. It’s amazing how quickly we forget that the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade (GATT)—albeit a watered down version of what was initially proposed—was part of the troika of international institutions designed to ensure peace and stability following the end of World War II.
Fast forward over a half a century and the love-connection between trade and security still holds true. The Post-9/11 world coincided with the dawn of a FTA-heavy US trade policy, in large part due to the revitalization of US national security interests within the economic fold. It’s for this reason we witnessed friendly Middle Eastern and North African governments such as Bahrain, Morocco, and Oman being rewarded with free trade agreements, despite these countries consisting an almost trivial part of US trade flows. Such FTAs even had technical assistance and training programs built in to strengthen compliance with US intelligence networks and further build US contacts.
But you don’t have to get caught up in just the material and hard-power aspects of trade. As I’ve written elsewhere, it’s important to recognize that the “cross-border flow of goods can also be a cross-border flow of trust between countries,” and that “exporting cars is no more important that exporting US ideas on how to manage the world economy.” The process of negotiating alone can stimulate new informal networks between the US and allies, building both personal and trust-filled relationships.
Trade does not necessarily have to be a reactive measure either. In a world where catchy headlines rule, we constantly hear things like the “pivot to Asia” where Uncle Sam is pictured performing an emphatic 180 spin. But US trade can be proactive too by fostering development abroad that combats the rise of terrorist groups and unproductive foreign influence. For example, the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) and the Caribbean Basin Trade Partnership Act (CBTPA) offer goodies to developing nations like trade capacity building programs (TCBs) and unreciprocated US tariff reductions. These initiatives should not be seen as just altruism. Through creating new economic opportunities in the developing world, the AGOA and CBTPA can stamp out terrorist safe havens and nullify China’s increasingly common arms-for-oil strategy for gaining influence. Trade is therefore not just a game of drastic spins and pivots; it’s one of prudence and gradualism that aims to prevent costly events in the future with less costly solutions in the present.
US trade should still not be confused as a limitless dose of soft power that can be sprinkled on the world at will. This is where many trade advocates overstep their ground. For the most part, trade agreements are not about creating new alliances, but about buttressing existing ones. There’s a reason the United States’ first ever bilateral free trade agreement was birthed with Israel. And for the same reason, we’re seeing the US negotiate trade deals with the EU and Japan, not bedfellows like Venezuela and Cuba. But just because friendly relationships exist does not mean they cannot go sour (i.e. see any romantic comedy ever made), which is why economic ties can prove particularly important for solidifying US interests abroad.
What should be learned then is that the US trade agenda is not formed in a vacuum, it’s formed within the global context of strategy-heavy politics. Going forward, TTIP should be rigorously pursued and viewed as interconnected with the Ukraine crisis, not as something separate. TPP—if not Obama’s “pivot” to Asia—should at the very least build on the economic, diplomatic, and political ties between the US and Pacific countries. And specialized trade initiatives like AGOA and CBTPA should be extended and improved by giving the agricultural commodities of developing countries even more access to US consumers. Are these trade ideas guarantors of world peace? No—but they do complement US national security rather well.
Follow Brendan on Twitter @BrendanJConnell
Brendan Connell is an American University Graduate Student and Research Assistant at the American Security Project covering American competitiveness and issues in trade.