A Brief History of Secretive Trade Negotiations


Over the past two years there has been a steady drip of stories about the secretive negotiations regarding the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). Members of Congress and congressional staffers have been stymied in their efforts to perform some measure of oversight while major corporations have reportedly been given unfettered access and influence over the deal. The public has been kept almost completely in the dark regarding negotiations that affect everything from food prices to our ability to innovate on the Internet. The TPP is just the most recent in a growing stable of not-so-transparent negotiations.

Historically, international trade negotiations have happened through the World Trade Organization. But, recently, groups of nations have come together outside of this framework in attempts to hammer out more localized deals. The negotiations have been focused on topics like internet regulation, intellectual property, beef prices, and tobacco regulation, that create friction in global business.

Trade negotiators have had trouble closing major deals over the past decade, in part because the public, and sometimes their elected officials, have stood up to decry these secret negotiations, demanding oversight opportunities and setting up websites to post leaked drafts of the agreements. As the public becomes aware of some of the less savory items included in these trade deals they have been scuttled by popular revolt. Notably, the European Parliament voted to reject The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) following popular protest.

ACTA is, perhaps, the most well-known of these secretive trade agreements. It was negotiated with the intent of establishing international standards for intellectual property rights enforcement but, in part because of outrage over the secret nature of negotiations, it has only been ratified by Japan. Critics of ACTA secrecy employed a number of tactics to pull the negotiations into the sunlight. Important documents were posted on WikiLeaks, citizens of the world banded together to petition for more openness, and elected officials used their powers to try and force disclosure. While these efforts had mixed results, the global reaction to ACTA secrecy appears to have stalled attempts to ratify the treaty in most of the nations that signed on.

The World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), a meeting run by the International Telecommunications Union, was a secretive meeting notable for the efforts made by some countries to change the way that the internet is regulated around the world. It is also notable for the efforts it inspired among observers to guarantee that it was somewhat transparent. The meeting spawned its own leaks website, WCITLEAKS, that continues to monitor and expose the inner workings of the ITU.

Trade negotiations aren’t always so closed off. The George W. Bush administration did make some progress in the form of the Free Trade Area of the Americas.  The FTAA was a proposed free trade area encompassing most countries in the Western Hemisphere. After public demonstrations against it many of the associated governments, including the United States, began to open the process. The FTAA released three drafts of the negotiating text, including bracketed sections which represented portions that had not been agreed upon. The United States Trade Representative at the time, Robert Zoellick, argued that “the availability of the text will increase public awareness of and support for the FTAA.”

President Obama has recently stated his hope that the TPP can be wrapped up by the end of the year, and is pushing Congress for authority to fast track approval of trade deals, possibly to avoid further scrutiny and acrimonious debate. The US is already turning its attention to another deal, the Trans Atlantic Free Trade Agreement with the European Union. World leaders should look back in order to plan for the future of trade negotiations, recognizing that more transparent processes will lead to deals that are better for everyone.

As Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has argued “if transparency would would lead to widespread public opposition to a trade agreement, then that trade agreement should not be the policy of the United States.”

It is time for negotiators to change their failed strategy of secrecy and negotiate in the open. Shedding some sunlight on international trade negotiations will increase public confidence in the negotiating nations and improve the chances that acceptable and equitable deals are reached and ratified.