It's the Geoeconomy, Stupid

America needs to get serious about trade with Europe.

President Obama will meet his European Union counterparts in Brussels on March 26 for a summit that will attempt to provide a needed boost to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). TTIP, which aims to create the largest free-trade agreement in history, is attracting its share of critics after less than a year of negotiations. While TTIP will inevitably leave some grievances unanswered given the ambition and complexity of the issues under discussion, it is crucial that the talks succeed.

Unlike any previous free-trade agreement, TTIP is not only about tearing down barriers to the exchange of goods and services, but also fundamentally about geoeconomics—about creating rules of the road for global economic governance that enhance U.S. security.

In the future, successful U.S. global engagement will require a level playing field for private companies with their state-run competitors; limitations on governments’ control of energy flows; secure platforms to transfer commercial and personal data; restrictions on local-production and domestic-content requirements; high environmental standards; and protections for intellectual property that reward innovation.

The U.S. has tried to pursue these new, twenty-first-century rules for the global economy in a multilateral context through the nearly fourteen-year-old Doha Round of negotiations in the World Trade Organization. Because of the rise of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) and other countries with different views of how to structure international economic relations these talks have yielded only lowest-common-denominator results.

While the U.S. engages in the G20, its deliberations are concerned mostly with fiscal and monetary questions like the right currency values or fiscal austerity vs. fiscal stimulus, and it is an essentially consultative body. And specialized global agencies like the World Intellectual Property Organization or the World Health Organization suffer from the same heterogeneous membership that has plagued the WTO. None of these fora currently offer the right kind of opportunities for the U.S and the EU to forge binding, high-standard global economic rules.

It is true that neither the U.S. nor the EU can make globally relevant rules alone, but together these two large, economically advanced and like-minded commercial heavyweights (who constitute 45 percent of world GDP) have the heft to create new structures that other trading partners will find it hard not to adopt. TTIP is a rational response by the United States to the increasing diversity of the international economic system.

That is all the more true as the alternative to TTIP is not the status quo. A number of Asian countries are pushing for a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) that includes China, India and Japan, and that does not reflect the high-standard rules that the U.S. should prefer. If it gains momentum, Russia and other neighboring countries may knock at the RCEP door. A race could soon begin to decide who sets global economic rules.

TTIP not only has a key role to play to help maintain and strengthen a fair and open global economy. It is also a crucial element in U.S. policy towards Europe.

As the current crisis in Ukraine demonstrates, the more economically united the U.S. and the EU are, the more weight they carry on crucial foreign-policy challenges. Unless globalization is reversed, international economic forces will play an increasing role in U.S. security. TTIP will be an important test of whether the U.S. can modernize its relationship with Europe to keep up with this evolution.

U.S. success or failure in rebalancing its relationship with Europe in this way also has implications for how the world sees the broader U.S. approach to international affairs. A U.S. retreat from trade with a long-time strategic ally like Europe could be interpreted as a sign that the U.S. is disengaging from a leadership role on a number of core foreign- and security-policy commitments.

Considering the overwhelming geoeconomic imperative of getting TTIP done, is there a risk that it could fail? Yes, if both the U.S. and the EU fall victim to what Freud called the “narcissism of minor differences” and take their eyes off the big picture for too long. While the U.S. and the EU have their legitimate differences on a number of trade, investment and regulatory matters, what divides the two sides of the Atlantic is minor compared to what unites their joint interests.

While Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill also have their differences over trade policy, there is reason to be optimistic that the two parties can find common ground because of TTIP’s larger role in advancing U.S. international economic interests.

It is true that many Democrats are wary of trade activism, but deepening economic ties with Europe should be more palatable to the party’s base given the high labor, social and environmental standards in the EU. Not only that, but the party has a distinguished track record in transatlantic trade to build upon. It was the administration of John F. Kennedy, a Democrat, that passed the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 to promote trade with a uniting Europe, combining the commercial goal of keeping the continent’s markets open to U.S. goods with the strategic one of fostering greater cooperation between the U.S. and Europe—a “Declaration of Interdependence” as Kennedy termed it.

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