America’s new defense secretary, Ashton Carter, likes to joke that a free-trade pact with Asia would be “as important to me as another aircraft carrier.” His larger point is that economic cooperation can be a powerful peacekeeper. It is a good argument to make as Congress weighs passage of a bipartisan bill on trade.
The bill would grant special authority to President Obama in negotiating trade deals, notably one now in the works with 11 other Pacific nations and another with the European Union. Any final pact could be subject to only an up-or-down vote in Congress. This “take it or leave it” restraint is crucial to achieving complex compromises in trade negotiations. The bill also sets down minimum requirements on labor rules, environmental standards, and human rights.
The economic benefits or drawbacks of free trade to Americans will be hotly debated as President Obama makes a strong push for passage of the measure, known as trade promotion authority. Yet given the world history of war as a means for economic gain, lawmakers should support the expansion of trade competition as a welcome substitute for the violence of war. It is far better that nations compete with economic tools, such as trade rules, loans, credits, or even sanctions than with military weapons. It must also fight the temptation to see prosperity as a limited economic pie.
As Harvard scholar Steven Pinker wrote about Europe’s postwar moves toward trade cooperation: “Zero-sum plunder gave way to positive-sum trade. People increasingly controlled their impulses and sought to cooperate with their neighbors.” Or look at the increasing role of economic sanctions – rather than armed conflict – such as those used against Russia and Iran for their military aggressiveness.
The most likely trade pact to come before Congress soon is the 12-nation TransPacific Partnership. The TPP would define trade rules for 40 percent of the world economy, and that is even without China not yet included in the talks. It would also help give Asia-Pacific countries a larger interest in each other’s security, protect smaller nations from the economic coercion of larger ones, and help cement America’s future in Asia.
As Defense Secretary Carter put it in a recent speech:
“Some people would have you believe that China will displace America in the Asia-Pacific, or that its economic growth will somehow squeeze out opportunities for young [Americans]. But I reject the zero-sum thinking that China’s gain is our loss because there’s another scenario in which everyone wins. And it is a continuation of the decades of peace and stability anchored by a strong American role, in which all Asia-Pacific countries continue to rise and prosper, including China.” He adds that peace and prosperity in Asia will be the coming generation’s “central strategic challenge.”
The world’s long-held hope for peace has relied on finding alternatives to war that allow people to both compete and cooperate, such as in cultural expression, the Olympics, or space exploration. Trade expansion may be the most potent alternative, one far better than building more aircraft carriers.