The irony of a transatlantic free trade deal

Walter Russell Mead shares my enthusiasm for the prospect of a transatlantic trade deal, though I fear he goes a bit overboard in his post: 

The mobilization towards an agreement reflects the changing landscape of global trade. If a deal emerges, it will allow the U.S. and EU more leeway to set the rules of the road for the industries that matter most to them....

This potential trade deal is also a further sign of the collapse of the movement toward global free trade. The new round of WTO negotiations is effectively dead, and a major deal between two of the world’s largest economies would be a further signal that bilateral negotiations are once again becoming the norm.

Finally, this deal shows us that the BRICs are not quite as influential as many think. A U.S.-EU trade deal is essentially a way to ignore countries like Brazil and India while crafting rules that will govern some of the high-tech industries and information-based services that play a growing role in US-EU trade.

Mead is correct to point out the advantages of the US and EU trying to craft an FTA template, particularly for the sectors they care about a lot.  Still, a few quibbles and disagreements. 

First, a transatlantic deal doesn't signal a "collapse of the movement toward global free trade" -- it signals a different pathway towards that goal.  The collapse of Doha suggests that the traditional multilateral round negotiaions are dead, but it's worth remembering that the global economy got very close to zero barriers in the late 19th century and there was nary a multilateral institution to be found.  True, the trade agreements of the 19th century had most-favored nations clauses and their 21st century counterparts do not.  Nevertheless, the political economy of trade diversion still generates competitive incentives for a growth in FTAs, thereby leading to a similar end outcome -- a world blanketed in free-trade agreements. 

Second, contra Mead, I'd suggest that a transatlantic trade deal is not a sign of US-EU strength, but rather its weakness.  There have been rumblings and trial balloons to do something like this for the past fifteen yewars, but it never really got off the ground.  The reason it never got off the ground was simple -- both Americans and Europeans were worried that any trade deal this massive would scupper the WTO system.  It would seem like a developed country effort to completely rewrite the rules of the global trading game.  Since everyone had a lot of skin in the WTO game, it didn't seem like it would be worth it. 

Two things have changed.  First, the traditional method of multilateral trade liberalization has died.  Second, while both the US and EU are major trading states, they're not quite as pivotal as they used to be.  Ironically, it's their declining (though still appreciable) importance in global trade that makes a US-EU agreement feasible now.  The BRIC economies are now sufficiently large that a transatlantic trade deal doesn't seem like an existential threat. 



Load More Comments